or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Listen Up

Via Boingboing, an insane list of Nazi rules for the performance of jazz music, which contains the following sentence:

Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden.

If you are a musician, then perhaps you have heard the word "sordine" before, but I hadn't. It's a mute on a musical instrument, like the damper in a piano, and it's a French-looking version of the Italian "sordina", with the same meaning.

Now, if you know any French it will occur to you that "sordine" looks sort of like "sourd", which is to say "deaf", and then it will occur to you that if they're related, which they are, then apparently the Romance languages use "deaf" to express for musical instruments the same idea for which English uses "mute". (English took "deaf" from the Norse/Germanic branch of its word-stock: "mute" is from French "muet", with the same meaning.) Since Italian "sordo" means "muffled", Romance languages are expressing that the sound of the instrument is made to imitate the sound a (partly) deaf person would be hearing, where the English is expressing what's actually happening to or being done to the instrument, which is fascinating.

Now, "sordo" is from Latin "surdus", "silent", and "surdus" more or less demands you think of the word "absurd", which means "nonsensical: contrary to logic". "Surdus" evolved to have a cloud of related meanings: "silent", but also "deaf", "unresponsive" (which the deaf may be through no fault of their own), and "indistinct". "Absurdus" uses an intensifier to take the ideas further: "stupid", "worthless", "incongruous", and "discordant", among others, all of which are elements of "absurd".

If you are instead of or in addition to a musician a mathematician, the word "surd" will have come to mind before now: a surd is an irrational number, one which cannot be expressed as a fraction of integers.


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