'Cord' vs. 'Chord'

We hope this strikes a chord if you're trying to remember the difference between "cord" and "chord."

Ryan Paulsen, Writing for
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

A set of musical notes is a chord. You can remember the spelling by telling yourself the H as stands for "harmonious."

If there’s one thing we can learn from the history of English words, it’s that spelling is not what it used to be—because spelling didn’t used to matter at all.

Back in the early centuries of English, people pretty much spelled words however they wanted. There was no such thing as the “right” way to spell anything; if it got the point across, that was good enough.

These days, as much as it might frustrate some of us, spelling has pretty much been standardized, and people are much less accustomed to simply sorting out what word they’re looking at just from context. So if we want to communicate as clearly as possible, we do need to pay some attention to what letters we’re using, and in what order, when writing.

One fairly common pair of often confused words when it comes to spelling is “cord” (a length of rope, string or other long thing, usually to tie something up or connect two things together) and “chord” (a set of musical notes played together, hopefully in harmony).

Often, to help us remember how to spell words that sound the same, and look very similar, but mean different things, we can look into the history of those words (also called “etymology”) for clues.

Unfortunately in this case, the history of “cord” and “chord” is of absolute no help whatsoever because the two words are very closely related.

The origins of 'cord' and 'chord' are muddled together

The word “chord” (the musical one) actually comes from the word “accord,” meaning “agreement,” “harmony,” etc. You can think of "accord" as the opposite of “discord.”

“Accord” went through two different linguistic processes on its way to “chord.” The first is called aphesis, which is the process of a word losing an initial (usually unstressed) vowel sound (think how many people use “he looked round” instead of “he looked around” as an example of this). The word for the musical sound was first just "cord" — "accord" minus the first "ac."

The second linguistic process, and it is a very technical term, is “confusion.” Back when spelling didn’t matter, people just threw an H into the word, because there was already a word “chord” in use at the time, which was itself just a different way of spelling the word we now insist gets spelled without an H. The cause of this confusion is that “chord” was often the word used to describe the string of a musical instrument like a lyre or a harp, so it had a musical sense to it already.

So to recap: The word we spell with an H now to specifically refer to the group of musical notes was once spelled without an H because it was a shortening of “accord,” but then it got the H added to it because people got confused with the other “chord” (with an H), which was just a different way of spelling the word we now spell with no H to refer to a string or rope.

Confused? Me too. Sometimes maybe it’s a blessing that we have standardized spelling these days…

How to remember the difference between 'cord' and 'chord'

What we haven’t come up with yet is an easy way to remember how to spell each one, so let’s get at that now. Since we can’t look to the history of the words to help us (because obviously people have been confused about these words literally for centuries) maybe we can just look at the letters themselves, and the meaning of the words.

Remember that a musical chord is spelled with an H by thinking of a chord as being harmonious.

Since “chord” (with an H) refers to a group of harmonious musical notes, why don’t we just say that when you want to remember the difference between the spellings, remember how important harmony is in music. Without the H, you don’t have a “chord” (or even “accord”). You just have a boring piece of string or rope.

Is it 'strike a chord' or 'strike a cord'?

While we’re at it, people often wonder whether the phrase “to strike a chord” has an H in it.

When you “strike a chord” with someone else, what you’ve done is connect with them somehow, which might make you think “cord” (C-O-R-D) is the way to go (as in, a rope or a string that ties people together), but remember: It’s all about harmony. The phrase actually is an analogy to the musical “chord,” because when, say, a speaker strikes a chord with an audience, everyone is all together, in sync and in tune with one another, just like a choir singing together or a pleasing chord on a piano or guitar.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Ryan Paulsen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ryan Paulsen is an avid word nerd and co-host of the etymology podcast Lexitecture.

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