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“reached a crescendo”

December 29, 2016

I’ve just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – a novel which starts from a brilliant premise and is absorbing for the first 200 pages or so, but struck me as rather tedious and laboured for the last 300 – but that’s by the way. My topic for discussion today is that Atkinson uses the familiar but wrong phrase reached a crescendo. Why do so many writers use this crashingly mistaken expression? Crescendo means “getting louder”. It’s a process, not a final stage to be reached. And I bet Kate Atkinson knows that, too. What she really meant was “reached a climax”; or, if she wanted to keep the musical metaphor, “reached fortissimo”.

Crescendo is an interesting word. It literally means “growing”; it appears in different form in the English term crescent moon (“growing moon”), and also in the French word croissant, which is, of course, crescent-shaped.

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Yes, this old chestnut again. On a related point, as an organist I get annoyed when someone refers to ‘pulling out all the stops’ to mean that they are making the greatest effort possible. Now I know this is obscure, but if you are playing an organ and you actually pull out all the stops you will just get an unpleasant mush of tone. In order to get the loudest and most commanding tone, you should only pull out a smaller number of the main stops which gives clarity as well as power, also ensuring that the wind available is concentrated on those particular stops, focussing their effect. So now you know.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Several online dictionaries define crescendo as meaning both increasing noise and the loudest part which seems contradictory; like reaching an acceleration.
    Interesting point about the organ; pull out all the stops appears to be a twist on a usage credited to Matthew Arnold who wrote “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow toned organ, the modern Englishman”.

  3. Thanks, Simon, for the Arnold reference – again, I have learned something.

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