Getting To The Top

A proper use for "crescendo"

“Daring project reaches a crescendo,” read a headline in the Albany Times-Union the other day. It struck a chord.

Anyone who’s ever studied music, or knows even a little bit about it, knows that a “crescendo” is a gradual increase in the loudness or force of the music. That’s why it sounds so off key to hear “crescendo” used in the same way as a “climax” or “peak.”

“Crescendo” is the gerund form of the Italian verb crescere, meaning to grow or increase. The “crescendo” is not the top; it’s the trail to the top. (For those wondering what a gerund is, it’s a verb masquerading as a noun.)

That hasn’t stopped scores of writers (and editors) from using “crescendo,” repeatedly, to describe the fortissimo of everything from the crowd noise at a basketball game to diplomatic tensions. (As an aside, is it coincidental that the musical symbol for “repeat” looks a lot like the emoticon for indifference? :| )

As is true of so many other casual evolutions in English, the use of “crescendo” to mean “peak” is an American invention. The Oxford English Dictionary notes its first use in The Great Gatsby: “The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.”

The OED calls the use “colloquial,” but Webster’s New World College Dictionary doesn’t acknowledge it at all; the definitions all refer to a gradual increase. Most other dictionaries list the dissonant form as an alternative definition, without comment. The American Heritage Dictionary voices objections with a usage note: “Although citational evidence over time attests to widespread currency, it is difficult for anyone acquainted with the technical musical sense of crescendo to use it to mean ‘a peak.’” And Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “To say something ‘reaches’ a crescendo is woolly-minded.”

The fat lady may have sung on this one, but the best writers will refrain from allowing a “crescendo” to be reached; the rest will be performing a cappella.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.