The Grammarphobia Blog

It doesn’t strike a chord

Q: Actors, politicians, churchgoers, and chefs are claiming that scripts, policies, psalms, and ingredients resonate with them. It’s everywhere just now. Enough already. All this resonating doesn’t strike a chord with me.

A: I agree. The strings of my heart don’t exactly zing over all the resonating in the air. The usage is stale, tired, and boring. Aside from that, however, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Although “resonate” originally meant to produce resonance in a musical sense, the word has been used figuratively for more than 30 years.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say it can mean to evoke a shared feeling or to relate harmoniously.

The word, which comes from the Latin resonare (to resound), is relatively new. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1873 treatise on musical sound: “The wires of the corresponding note will of course resonate with it.”

The OED’s first reference for “resonate” used figuratively is in a 1976 issue of Publishers Weekly in which prose is described as “resonating with the illustrations.” (The editors at PW started something: the word went on to become numbingly familiar in literary criticism.)

The much older words “resonance” and “resonant” have been used in both an acoustic and a figurative sense for far longer.

The noun “resonance” referred to prolonging sound by vibration when it entered English in the late 15th century, according to the OED, but it was used figuratively as early as 1607: “So ought our hearts … to haue no other resonance but of good thoughts.”

The adjective “resonant” could refer to either resounding words or music in the 16th and 17th centuries. A 1592 citation mentions “earnest and resonant, but vndigested words,” while Milton writes in Paradise Lost (1667) of a “resonant fugue.”

In a clearly figurative use, an 1842 essay by Elizabeth Barrett Browning refers to the “resonant majesty” of the English dramatist Philip Massinger.

So, “resonate,” “resonance,” and “resonant” have a history. But that’s no reason to work these poor words to death. Let’s give them a rest. And one day, they may resonate again. Or, as Judy Garland, sang: “All nature seemed to be in perfect harmony / Zing! Went the strings of my heart.”

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.