The Grammarphobia Blog

These strings don’t zing!

Q: I find that the use of the verb “resonate” (as in “Senator Obama’s speeches resonate with the public”) is so ubiquitous as to be nauseating. Do you agree?

A: “Resonate” is indeed so overused that it appears to have lost all meaning. It’s particularly noticeable in political writing and in criticism – especially in book reviews!

The literal meaning of the noun “resonance” – sound prolonged or reinforced by synchronous vibration – was once very powerful when applied figuratively to something that strikes a chord, as it were, within the human breast.

But the figurative use of “resonate” and “resonance” has been beaten to death and trivialized. You might say the resonance has died away!

In case you’re interested, the verb “resonate” appeared in print for the first time in an 1873 book about sound and harmony: “The wires of the corresponding note will of course resonate with it.”

Over the next century, it seems to have been used primarily in its technical sense. The first figurative use in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1976 article in Publishers Weekly about prose “resonating with illustrations.”

The noun “resonance,” a much earlier word, dates from the late 15th century. Both words have their roots in the Latin verb resonare, meaning to resound. But neither one is a resounding success these days.

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