Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Millennia ago, humankind discovered that if you stretched taut a string or fiber of certain composition and caused it to vibrate, it would make a pleasing and predictable sound. And throughout history, we have constructed myriad contraptions — like the 3-stringed Russian balalaika, the 13-stringed Japanese koto, the 21-stringed West African kora, and the 47-stringed harp — that let us pluck, strum, hammer, and bow those sounds into existence.
All of these instruments (and more) have wondrous etymological and musical histories, but for today’s word story, we’re starting with the harp. Instrument makers in many cultures having created frames to hold multiple taut strings since ancient times, resulting dozens of different types of harps. But in every case, the word harp comes from a Germanic source; in Old English, it was a hearpe. From these Germanic sources, the word was adopted into Late Latin as harpa, which is why the instrument’s name looks similar in both Romance and Germanic languages.
Starting in the 14th century, musical innovators attempted to find ways to mechanize the playing of the harp in order to expand the range of the instrument and make it easier to play. An early such successful innovation was an instrument called the clavichord. The clavi- in clavichord (Medieval Latin clavicordium) traces to the Latin clavis “key.” And the -chord is pretty straightforward if you think about it: A string, cable, or rope is also called a cord. Both chord and cord come from the Latin chorda, “catgut, string” — in this case, the strings that make music.
So clavichord reduces to “key string,” which is a decent description because a set of keys are pressed to activate hammers that strike the strings of the instrument and produce sound. The clavichord was a relatively small instrument that used brass or iron hammers to make the sound. And while it was useful for home practice or as an aid to composition, it just wasn’t loud enough for large performances.
In the 16th century, instrument makers found a way to make a louder sound with the same keyboard. By the 1610s, we find English references to an instrument called the harpechorde — the s appeared inexplicably in the middle of the word by the 1660s.
The harp in harpsichord simply refers to the harp, the instrument this was intended to improve upon, and the chord once again refers to the strings. Harpsichord (Modern Latin harpsichordium) means “harp string.”
In simplified terms, a harpsichord is a harp laid flat, surround by a box, and with a row of keys at one end that activate mechanisms that pluck strings individually. While this plucking (as well as advances in acoustics) created a sound that could be heard more clearly at the back of the room, it didn’t allow players to also play softly. The harpsichord essentially played at a single volume (or, in musical terms, a single dynamic), which was very artistically limiting.
Enter Bartolomeo Cristofori, the curator of keyboard instruments for the Medici family in the late 17th century. Combining the technology from the clavichord and harpsichord with his own mechanical innovations, Cristofori created an instrument that he called the gravicembalo col piano e forte. Gravicembalo is a corruption of clavicembalo, a word which, though it’s etymologically identical to clavichord, is the Italian word for harpsichord, which tells us the instrument that Cristofori was attempting to improve.
Piano (from Latin planus “flat, smooth”) and forte (Latin fortis “strong”) are likewise Italian words, meaning “soft” and “loud.” Cristofori’s gravicembalo col piano e forte, then, was a “harpsichord with soft and loud.” And indeed, that’s what it was, using leather-cover hammers and intricate keying and dampening mechanisms to give the instrument a wider dynamic range.
But gravicembalo col piano e forte is a mouthful, so people shortened the name: some called it a pianoforte (“soft-loud”), others a fortepiano (“loud-soft”).
Composers for the instrument didn’t write, for example, Sonata for Pianoforte or Fortepiano at the top of their written works, though; they chose one name they preferred. By and large the most important and popular composers of the 1700s preferred pianoforte, so that version of the shortening became the commonest.
But some shortened it further still. By the beginning of the 1800s (in English, at least), the instrument was simply being called a piano — again, Italian for “soft” — despite the fact that the whole purpose of the instrument was to be able to play both soft and loud.
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