Daily Archives: January 21, 2013

smorzando

People who read sheet music are likely familiar with sforzando, the dynamic instruction usually marked on the page with sfz, which might look like a logo for some luxury item but to me resembles the mark and sound made when swatting or stifling a small insect – not an inapposite impression, since a sforzando is a sudden bit of loudness, a thing that could make the audience jump.

Well, this is not that. There is only one letter of difference in the word, but smorzando is more of a smothering counterpart to the firework of the sforzando.

The difference starts in what you see on the page. It’s not typically written out in full in a score, but it’s also not written as smz. Nope, it’s on the page as smorz. So the first thing you think is likely along the lines of “S’mores! Oh yes!” Ah, toasted marshmallows and melting chocolate between graham crackers. Things are going to get mighty gooey mighty quick around here! And, to reinforce that, there’s a s’mores-themed breakfast cereal called… oh, yes it is… Smorz. Imagine eating a whole box of those! Smorz stupebit indeed!

But there’s our cue. Just as the actual line that I just punned on from the requiem is mors stupebit, “death will be stunned,” the morz in smorzando refers to dying. Well, in this case, not dying the death of deaths, but dying away. S’mores may be moreish, but smorzando is decidedly lessish. Here’s your musical lesson: smorz means ‘lessen’. Or, more precisely, smorzando means ‘extinguishing’. The sound dies away, getting fainter and slower.

You can almost see it, can’t you? Someone smothering a fire with a wet blanket: smorz, smorz, smorz. (It helps to remember that in Italian, and in this loan from Italian, the z is [ts]. So it’s “smorts.” Or, to be more in line with the Italian pronunciation, “zmorts.”) If a smorzando is well accomplished, you may be snoring by the end, your wakefulness also extinguished (until the person next to you swats you after one of your snorts).

Know what else is extinguished? The beginning of the word. Have you noticed how Italian has an assortment of words that begin with s followed by another consonant that we wouldn’t put s before in English? Aside from sforzando you may (or may not) recognize sbarro, perhaps sbaglio, sfortunato, sdraiarsi, sdegnare, sfogato, sfumato, sveglia, svolgere, or any of quite a few others. What many of these have in common with smorzando is that the s is what’s left of a prefix that used to have a full syllable – often dis. The di has faded away.

In some cases this dis is a negator; in others, it’s an intensifier. In the case of smorzando it intensifies or supports. Smorzando is the present participle of smorzare, which comes from dis and morzare, which is related to morire, which means ‘die’. It’s more closely related to a causative form – i.e., ‘cause to die’. So ‘extinguish’. ‘Snuff out’. ‘Smother’. ‘Force to plotz’.

Out, out, brief candle. You flare up with a sfz and then, over your embers, we cook s’mores (obviously this is a biiiig candle) as you die away and are ultimately extinguished… deliciously, of course: it’s all about the musical effect, the beautiful slow deliquium.

A grave case of synonym-itis

Some writers go to great lengths to find synonyms for things or acts that they have to refer to repeatedly in a story. They seem to have the idea that this adds flavour and depth and style to their writing. Actually, it tends to add a thick layer of BS and to demonstrate quite clearly why supposed synonyms are not necessarily fungible.

Newspaper writers have an especially bad reputation for this. Every fall newspapers are littered with references to “orange gourds” because the authors think there’s something wrong with saying pumpkin more than once. Articles on dining will have the oddest things being “munched”: Pancakes? Spaghetti?

But today I have encountered a really particularly bad case of this lexical disfigurement.  Bob Greene, CNN Correspondent, bestselling author of 25 books, who therefore really ought to know better, has presented a piece called “Why ‘Hail to the Chief’ remains unsung” that in other respects is not terrible (it’s not great; its central point is rather questionable) but in its use of synonyms for sing is in a grave condition indeed.

He’s talking about politicians singing together at the presidential inauguration. It doesn’t start out so badly. He first says they “blend their voices for certain time-honored lyrics.” OK, fine.  He then comes to “Hail to the Chief,” which is normally played by a brass band and not sung, even though it has a rather good set of words (his thesis is that because the words speak of unity in approval of the presidential choice, opposing politicians wouldn’t want to sing it). He manages a reasonable, not inaccurate “it would be unrealistic to assume that members of the party out of power would want to enthusiastically belt them out.” Sure, “belting out” the lyrics to that song – easy to picture. And after that his next synonym is “ardently vocalize,” which at least presents the same picture.

So try to reconcile that with his next synonym: “they possess the potential for some pretty awkward moments of public crooning.”

“Public crooning”?! What?! Crooning is a style of singing. It is a style very unlike what he has just described, very unlike what you would expect at the occasion, and really quite unlike what you would probably expect from any group of assembled people singing patriotic songs.

His next inelegant variation is “Try to picture, during the administration of George W. Bush, the trio of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama raising their voices in song to warble in Bush’s direction…” Warble? Um, OK, if you have to. But really? You don’t have to.

And in the next paragraph it’s “the sight and sound of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and Trent Lott harmonizing…” Leaving aside the question of whether you see them harmonizing, I think it honestly unlikely that you would hear them harmonizing; dollars to doughnuts they would all be singing the same melody line.

OK, OK, you don’t just want to say “sing” over and over and over. Fine. Your central thesis is a little weak and you feel you need to reinforce the point with repeated imagery. And the English language is rich with different ways to say more or less the same thing. But try to stick with the more, not the less, OK? And maybe ask yourself, next time you talk about people “crooning” a loud song (or “murmuring” a military order, which I’ve also seen), whether you aren’t trying to get your thesaurus to do work your thesis should be doing.