The Grammarphobia Blog

An opera in progress

Q: You said on the radio that the word “opera” was once plural, but are you sure about that? Doesn’t it come from una opera in Italian, meaning the same thing as une oeuvre in French? Just wondering.

A: In English, “opera” has always been used in the singular. But it has its origin in a Latin plural.

The Latin word opus (meaning a work) was “used from the late 15th and early 16th cent., especially in Italy, to denote a musical composition,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“It came to be used systematically from the early 17th cent., particularly in Venice, for numbered sets of pieces by a composer in the chronological order of publication,” the OED adds. “At first restricted to instrumental music, this practice was later (from c1800) used also for vocal works.”

The word opera, a Latin plural of opus, has been used in Italian since 1639 as a singular meaning a “composition in which poetry, dance, and music are combined,” according to the OED.

“Opera” entered English later in the 17th century as a borrowing from Italian and was also used in the singular. (In French, by the way, an opera is an opéra, while an oeuvre is an artistic or literary work.)

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