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The lowdown on ‘crescendo’

Q: Is “crescendo” a lost cause? I hardly ever hear it used properly to mean a gradual increase in sound. As a music lover, it pains me to hear it mean a climax.

A: Most standard dictionaries now accept both uses of “crescendo”: (1) a gradual increase in intensity, and (2) the highest point of the increase.

The entry in Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, begins by defining a “crescendo” as “a swelling in volume of sound especially in playing or singing music,” or “a passage so performed.”

The dictionary then adds a more expansive definition of “crescendo” as “any gradual increase (as in physical or emotional force or intensity)” or “the peak of such an increase.”

M-W Unabridged says the climax sense of the word “originated as an Americanism in the early decades of 20th century.”

However, the American usage is now common in Britain. The online UK editions of both Oxford Dictionaries and Cambridge Dictionary include the climactic sense of “crescendo” used in the musical as well as the wider sense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the peak sense as “a fully established meaning,” but notes that it “shows no sign of driving the earlier senses from use.”

The usage guide says the newer sense of “crescendo” is an understandable development: “Since the increase has to reach some sort of climax, the extension of the word to the climax from the increase hardly seems surprising.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says, “This newer use causes distress and anxiety among more sensitive editors, not to mention many musicians, but it seems likely to prevail.”

However, the more traditional Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), by Bryan A. Garner, insists that a “crescendo” is a gradual increase, not a peak: “To say that something reaches a crescendo is woolly-minded.”

The usage panel advising The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) was divided on the issue when surveyed in 2006, with 55 percent accepting this sentence: “When the guard sank a three-pointer to tie the game, the noise of the crowd reached a crescendo.”

We agree with the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide that the new sense of “crescendo” is “a fully established meaning,” but we’re also among the “more sensitive editors” who use the term in the traditional way.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “crescendo” showed up in English in the 18th century as “a musical direction indicating that the tone is to be gradually increased in force or loudness.”

As a noun, according to the dictionary, it meant a “gradual increase of volume of tone in a passage of a piece of music; a passage of this description.”

English borrowed the term from Italian, but the ultimate source is crēscĕre, Latin for to arise, grow, or increase.

The first citation for “crescendo” in the OED is from Musical Travels Through England (1774), by Joel Collier, a pen name often attributed to the English barrister and writer John Bicknell:

“I stood still some time to observe the diminuendo and crescendo.” (The musical direction “diminuendo,” or “decrescendo,” is the opposite of “crescendo.”)

However, a reader of our blog discovered an earlier example from The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771), by Charles Burney: “each forte, piano, crescendo, diminuendo, and appoggiatura is observed with a minute exactness.”

In a little more than a decade, according to the dictionary’s citations, the musical sense led to the figurative use of “crescendo” as a noun meaning a “progressive increase in force or effect.”

The first example in the OED is from a July 20, 1785, letter by Richard Twining, who was traveling in Wales, to his musical brother, the Rev. Thomas Twining: “The crescendo of mountains, as we went up the lake pleased me as much, I think, as any crescendo of sound can have pleased you.”

The climactic sense of “crescendo” showed up in the US in the 1920s. The OED defines it as the “peak of an increase in volume, force, or intensity; a climax. Esp. in phr. to reach a crescendo.”

The first OED example is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby: “The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.”

Finally, here’s an example from Uncle Fred in the Springtime, a 1939 novel by P. G. Wodehouse: “The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 23, 2017.]

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