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Monday, October 17, 2011

The piano is my forte

Today is the 152nd anniversary of Chopin's death, an appropriate day to look at the word "piano".  When pianos were first invented, around the beginning of the 1700s, the available keyboard instruments were the clavichord, which was very expressive but had the disadvantage that, well, you couldn't really hear it, and the harpsichord, which you could hear, but it had no mechanism for playing quieter or louder; the harpsichord had two volume levels: on or off.
Around 1700, one Bartolomeo Cristofori, who worked at the Medici court in Florence, invented a new instrument which created sound by a hammer striking a wire (whereas the harpsichord depends on a plucking mechanism). Because the volume could be varied by how hard the hammer hit, this new instrument was called a gravicembalo col piano e forte (‘harpsichord with soft and loud’). Not surprisingly, this got shortened to "piano e forte", then to "pianoforte" and within 70 years of its birth, to "piano".  No doubt Cristofori would have spluttered, "But, but, it plays forte TOO! That's the whole point!!"
The Italian musical terms piano (soft) and forte (loud) established themselves in English at about the same time. Piano literally means "plane" or "flat". It comes from the Latin word planus. Because the flat areas in Italy are in the lower coastal parts of the country, the word also came to mean "low", first in reference to height and then in reference to sound. Forte literally means "strong".
And here's my favourite bit of Chopin (both piano and forte) to enrich your day (starting at 0:30):


  1. Hello,

    "Forte", slightly distorted as "foarte" (such as the Spanish "fuerte") became the Romanian word for "very".


  2. Thank you for your piano forte video. Who said etymology wasn't entertaining? If I was an entymologist I might say that bugs me. Does fortune have any relationship to forte?

  3. Dear Oscar,
    Glad you liked the post. Forte and fortune are unrelated. Fortune comes from the Latin word fortuna, from fors meaning "chance".

  4. Used to listen to Chopin in my 'young and romantic days' nice to be reminded again have to revive my old CD's. Not so familiar with that one though -thanks.

  5. "...the harpsichord had two volume levels: on or off."

    Well ... no need to exaggerate.

    Harpsichords often had different ranks of strings which produced different volume (as well as tone colour). Also, there were sometimes arrangements to pluck different number of strings for each key, as well as things like the lute or buff stop. All varied both volume and tone colour.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.