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Why 'Crescendo' Doesn't Mean 'Peak'

Although they aren't etymologically related, think of "crescendo" and "descend" as a pair of opposites.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
The peak of a mountain, which is not a crescendo.

“Crescendo” comes from an Italian word that means “increasing.” In a musical crescendo, the players gradually get louder or perform with more intensity until they reach a peak. Other things can also crescendo; political outrage can crescendo, romantic feelings can crescendo, a flurry of activity can crescendo, and a scene in a play can crescendo, for example.

Although it is sometimes used to describe a peak—and the Oxford English Dictionary calls such use “colloquial” and says it originated in the United States—technically, a crescendo is not the peak itself, but rather the lead-up to the peak.

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I’ve always had trouble remembering how to spell “crescendo” since the middle syllable of the word isn’t spelled like it’s pronounced. It’s pronounced like “shen,” but it’s spelled “scen,” which, to me at least, looks like it should be pronounced “sen.” But then I noticed that it’s spelled like “descend,” which is something of its opposite in meaning, and that helped me get it right. The crescendo leads to the peak, and then you descend down the other side. 

The words don’t share a root, but I still think of them as this kind of up-and-down pair to remember the spelling.

Examples of the Traditional Use of ‘Crescendo’

A mosquito buzzed the King's ear with sudden crescendo. —James Clavell in the novel “King Rat

Henry pushed open the sliding glass door. Now the crescendo of the ocean became a roar. “Hear that?” he asked. “Makes it kind of hard to concentrate, doesn’t it?” —Mary Higgins Clark in the novel “Weep No More My Lady

Examples of the Colloquial Use of ‘Crescendo’

Well, if that's what you can call it. You seem to express attraction like some sort of 9-year-old school girl, picking fights and throwing insults around. What happens when you reach your crescendo? Do you punch the object of your affection in the arm? —General Hospital (1963 TV Series)

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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