[An updated and expanded post about “crescendo” appeared on June 23, 2017.]
Q: I am a musician and one of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word “crescendo.” I take exception to a phrase like “building to a crescendo.” In music, a crescendo is a growing louder, not a climax or a peak.
A: You’re right, of course. A crescendo is an increase in volume in a musical passage. Used figuratively, as in describing a bitter political campaign, the word “crescendo” should refer to an increase in bitterness, not to the peak that an increase is leading to.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language acknowledges that “crescendo” is widely used to mean a peak or a climax, but the dictionary says a majority of its Usage Panel rejects this practice.
The first published use of “crescendo” in English dates from 1776, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the first nonmusical citation is from 1859. The earliest published use of “crescendo” to mean peak (“caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo”) is from The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But I don’t mean to criticize Scott. As Gatsby’s Dad said, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”