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Language observations #231 – crescendo

Recently on CNN:

“The situation reached a crescendo when…”

I find this secondary usage quite interesting. My background in classical music makes his usage quite jarring to my ear. To me, the more correct word to use in this instance would be ‘climax’. The word crescendo originates from the Italian ‘to grow in sound’, so logically it cannot refer to the moment when the final growth point has been reached. But yet, the fact that the meaning of the word has been changed by users unaware of its specialised meaning makes me realize that words cannot easily be controlled and pinned down to a specific meaning. Language is malleable, adapting to those that use it, and does it matter what the ‘correct’ meaning is as long as it is understood by the listener? This article by John E. McIntyre describes it quite succinctly.

The lesson: change and adaptation of our language as as much a part of us as natural selection. Don’t fight it.

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