The Grammarphobia Blog

Playing the bass

Q: Why is the fishy “bass” spelled the same as the musical “bass” but pronounced differently? Are there other such words?

A: Words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and pronunciations are called heteronyms, a 19th-century term derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

Seen alone in print, a heteronym is ambiguous; we can’t tell which meaning is intended unless the word is pronounced or used in context.

Most heteronyms are etymologically related, like the words pronounced CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb), IN-va-lid (noun) and in-VAL-id (adjective).

Related heteronyms that are derived from the same etymological source are not rare. As we wrote on the blog in 2016, there are scores of them.

The rarer and more interesting heteronyms are like the two words spelled “bass,” which are linguistic accidents. They developed independently, one (the fish) from Germanic and one (the deep sound) from Latin. Their similar spellings in modern English are merely coincidental.

The fishy “bass” (rhymes with “grass”) arrived much earlier than the musical “bass” (rhymes with “grace”), so we’ll discuss the fish first.

The word for the fish was first recorded in Old English (then spelled bærs) around the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a corrupted form of barse, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates back to “about 700,” and which still survives in some dialects.

The OED defines this “bass” as “the Common Perch (Perca fluviatilis), or an allied freshwater species.” The fish probably got its name (first barse, then bærs, and eventually “bass”) because of its spiny, bristly fins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Old English bærs to a prehistoric root that’s been reconstructed as bhars– and means a projection, point, or bristle. The same root, the dictionary says, is the ancestor of “bristle” and “bur” in English and similar words in other Germanic languages.

So how did bærs become “bass”? As Donka Minkova writes in A Historical Phonology of English (2013), the “r” sound in bærs was no longer pronounced by the early 1300s. And the dropping of the “r” changed the sound of the vowel.

The loss of an “r” sound after a vowel and before a sibilant (like “s”) was not a widespread development, but did occur with some words, according to linguists.

In their book The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that the “older barse ‘fish’ by such loss became bass.” The same “r” loss is heard in some colloquial usages. By this process, the authors write, “arse became ass.”

After the “r” in bærs fell away in the 1300s, spellings of the word evolved sporadically from “bace” (1400s), to “bas” and “base” (1500s), then “basse” and “bass” (1600s and onward).

The OED’s earliest citation for the modern spelling is from the early 19th century, but we found an example in a 17th-century ship’s log. This entry was written on Oct. 16, 1663:

“Several Indian came on Board, and brought us great store of Fresh-fish, large Mullets, young Bass, Shads, and several other sorts of very good well-tasted Fish.” (From A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida, an account of a voyage aboard the ship Adventure, which sailed from Barbados in August 1663. The account, by Cmdr. William Hilton, Capt. Anthony Long, and Peter Fabian, was published in London in 1664.)

We’ve found several more uses of “bass” from the 17th and 18th centuries. In an English clergyman’s account of a visit to four colonial settlements, for example, the fish is mentioned eight times. Here’s one instance:

“The Bass is one of the best Fishes, being a Delicate and fat Fish.” (From Samuel Clarke’s A True and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America, published in 1670.)

Now we’ll leave the fish and turn to the “bass” that rhymes with “grace” and refers to a deep note or a musical instrument.

This “bass” appeared in English in the 15th century as both a noun and an adjective, according to OED citations.

The musical word “bass” is “simply a modified spelling” of the adjective “base” (meaning low), John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

In other words, the “base” that means low—borrowed in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman baas, bace, or bas—later came to be spelled “bass” in the sense of deep-sounding or a low note.

What influenced the spelling change to “bass” from “base,” Ayto says, was the Italian musical term basso. But though the spelling changed, the OED notes, the word was “still pronounced as base.”

The adjective “bass,” defined in the OED as “deep-sounding” or “low in the musical scale,” was first recorded in an anonymous musical treatise written sometime before 1450: “This same rwle [rule] may ye kepe be-twene Dsolre, Dlasolre, & al oþer [other] base keyys.”

(Explanation: For medieval singers, pitch was flexible, not fixed. In a notational system developed in Italy in the early 11th century and designed for chant, notes had names like “dsolre” (or “D3,” for D + sol + re) and “dlasolre” (or “D4,” for D + la + sol + re), representing the values a singer might place on the note.)

The noun “bass” in the musical sense has several meanings. It can mean “the lowest part in harmonized musical composition,” the OED says, or “the deepest male voice, or lowest tones of a musical instrument, which sing or sound this part.”

The word “bass” can also refer to an instrument that principally plays bass notes. The noun “bass” can be short for a double-bass or a bass guitar, and the word appears adjectivally in noun phrases like “bass saxophone,” “bass clarinet,” “bass trombone,” “bass drum,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun (used in the sense of a low tone) is in an English carol from sometime before 1500: “Whan … bulles of the see syng a good bace.”

Here are some instruments whose names include “bass,” along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

“bass viol” (possibly 1594; called “bass” for short in 1702); it was also known as a “bass violin” (1602) and is now the modern “violoncello” (1724) or “cello” (1848);

“bass trumpet” (1724);

“double-bass” (1728; also known as a “string bass” or “bass” for short, both dating from 1927;

“bass drum” (1789);

“bass clarinet” (1831);

“bass guitar” (1855; “bass” for short in 1937);

“bass trombone” (1856);

“bass flute” (1880).

The musical noun, the OED notes, is “erroneously” assumed by some to be derived from the noun “base” that means a foundation or bottom, but there is “etymologically no connection.”

The “base” that means a foundation is from the classical Latin basis; the “base” that means low, as well as the musical “bass,” can be traced to the post-classical Latin bassus.

So much for the two very different (and different sounding) words spelled “bass.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about another pair of unrelated heteronyms, the two nouns spelled “sewer.” They’re as different as sewing and sewage.

Other heteronyms that are etymological strangers to one another include these:

  • the noun “dove” (a bird) and the verb “dove” (a past tense of “dive”);
  • the noun “lead” (a metal) and the verb “lead” (to conduct);
  • the noun “number” (a sum) and the comparative adjective “number” (more numb);
  • the noun “row” (for a disturbance) and the verb “row” (to propel a boat);
  • the noun “sow” (a mama pig) and the verb “sow” (to plant seed);
  • the two different nouns spelled “tear” (a rip; a droplet from the eye), along with their respective verbs;
  • the “wind” (air current) and the verb “wind” (to twist).

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