Etymology Usage

Shall we segue?

Q: I think the verb “segue” means to move gradually or smoothly from one subject to another. But the chairman of a board I serve on never changes a topic without saying, “Let’s segue to X.” This irritates me, as I think an abrupt change isn’t a segue. Am I right or do I owe her a mental apology? Also, an educated person recently used the word “segway” in writing to me (not in reference to the scooter). Is this acceptable?

A: Most of the standard dictionaries we checked say the verb “segue” in its non-musical sense means to move smoothly and uninterruptedly from one subject to another.

For example, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the verb this way:

“1. Music To make a transition directly from one section or theme to another.

“2. To move smoothly and unhesitatingly from one state, condition, situation, or element to another: ‘Daylight segued into dusk’ (Susan Dworski).”

Does one have to move gradually, as you believe? Not necessarily. It’s OK to move directly from one subject to another as long as it’s done smoothly.

Is your board chairman moving smoothly from subject to subject when she says “Let’s segue to X”? It’s a judgment call, but we’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

You also asked if “segue” can be spelled “segway” (like the vehicle with two wheels).

The only dictionary we found that mentions this variant spelling, the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed.), calls it “a frequent misspelling of segue.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “segue” directly from Italian, where segue is the third person present singular of the verb seguire (to follow). It was initially used—and still is—as a musical direction (“segue the lieder” = “the lieder follows”).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1740 translation of a French musical dictionary: “Segue, it follows, or comes after; this word is often found before aria, alleluja, amen.”

In the mid-20th century, the verb came to mean “to move without interruption from one song or melody to another.” (Oddly, the OED considers this sense of the word slang, though standard dictionaries include it without comment.)

The dictionary’s first citation is from The Decca Book of Jazz (1958), by Peter Gammond: “Then, without stopping, the guitarist and Ellington segued into Body and Soul.”

The first example in the OED of the verb used in a nonmusical way is from George Baxt’s 1972 murder mystery Burning Sappho: “The crowds … let up a roar which soon segued into a mixture of cheers, jeers, jests, gibes.”

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