It was my friend Nym Cooke’s father Francis who first alerted me to the misuse of the word “crescendo” in common English. Crescendo means something quite specific in music. It means getting louder over a period of time, that period of time lasting from a fraction of a second to as long as 10 seconds or more. Some composers can even construct large sections of a movement as a slow crescendo by skillful manipulation of harmony, register, and instrumentation.
The most common misuse of the word crescendo is in the phrase “reach a crescendo,” which could, in fact, mean something in music. It could identify the place where a crescendo begins, where the music starts to get louder over time. But that’s never what is meant. In non-musical (bad) writing it is used to describe the moment when things are at their loudest, or most frenetic and chaotic.
I did a Google search on “reach a crescendo” this morning to find the perpetrators-du-jour. (Luckily for me there are only 17 entries; my investigative enthusiasm would have waned if there had been millions of examples.) Here are the results:
The use of “reach a crescendo” was most frequent on internet sites that discussed politics. Of the five examples, this was typical: “The cries for Balls to be thrown overboard will reach a crescendo as Alistair Darling leads the Unionist side to victory…”
Technology and/or gaming was next with four example, and the hands-down winner on the obscurity scale: “Ultimately, it expects the buzz around the ‘Internet of Things’ to reach a crescendo this year, with the “old stove-pipe M2M application approach…” And another: “These difficult decisions reach a crescendo, at least in the beta, when two outposts need help, but only one can be saved.”
Sports, as one might imagine, gets excited about people getting excited, and there were four examples there, too, like this one: “During the next few weeks, NBA trade rumors will reach a crescendo, sellers and buyers will crystallize, and many around these parts will want the Nuggets to dive head-first into that action.”
In the world of public works service and projects there were four examples, an indication of how impatient we are when things don’t work as we think they ought: “Blood pressure goes up because of the way commuters are treated at the toll plaza by its staff. Anxiety levels reach a crescendo.”
The world of finance was represented by just one dull quote “…each year we start a new file for economic and market forecasts that begin in December and usually reach a crescendo in late January.”
But the real find, and a use of “reach a crescendo” that I can almost accept, was in an article published on The Independent’s website under the headline “My wish is to serve you: a dominatrix reveals her clients’ most intimate fantasies.” It turns out that the dominatrix is the most articulate one of the bunch:
“After becoming a dominatrix and adopting the persona of the leather-clad Mistress Xena because of my resemblance to the warrior princess, I realised clients couldn’t talk comfortably to me about their sessions. They’d clam up when I asked what sort of whip they wanted me to use or what persona I should adopt. Who could blame them? These were things they had thought about for years but if they ever raised the issue, it was probably to confusion, horror or derision.
To ease the pressure, I encouraged clients to write a description of their ideal session beforehand. Women often complain that men have no imagination, but they should read my letters. With the clients’ approval, I began to collect them with a view to publishing them in a book.
At first, I received only hand-written letters, but these are becoming less common, which is a shame, as you learn so much from a person’s writing. Some have elegant script while others become more frenetic as the fantasies reach a crescendo…”
Next time, the use and misuse of ridicolosamente.