Why ‘Crescendo’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Peak’

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“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)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.