Daily Archives: May 15, 2011

crotchet

I think I might have a little note for this one in my quiver.

On the other hand, there are two quavers in this little note – quaver meaning “eighth note” and crotchet meaning “quarter note”. But fancy that, eh? How does a word for such a common snip of music gain such a scratchy, cranky, ratchety, crusty-sounding word?

Well, one might have an image of a crotchety musician, able to play a good hook but hard to work with – perhaps one of those who like to crochet between numbers, then ditch the work in their crotch while making the minimum brief quavering effort with the minims (half notes), semibreves (whole notes), quavers, and crotchets, or perhaps tossing the tune around like a game of lacrosse, but anyway getting through it by hook or by crook.

Well, actually, it’s a hook and a crook that are at the root of all this. Croche, to be specific: an old Northern French word for a hook or a bishop’s crosier (shaped like a shepherd’s crook). Its cognate crosse is the root of lacrosse. Croche itself has forked into a few branches.

There is, first, the one that leads to crotch (yes, yes, always the crotch shots early and often, like a movie). Our English crotch probably borrows as much from crutch as from croche, but one way or the other it appeared meaning a stake or pole with a forked top, used for supporting things. From that it came to refer to the place where a tree or branch divides in two, and from that the analogous location on the human body (so “the crotch of the tree” was not originally an anthropomorphic metaphor – rather the opposite – though of course that’s how it’s read now).

Then there is the diminutive, crochet, a little hook. That should be obvious enough, yes?

But from that came crotchet, which also meant first a small hook or hooked instrument (I’m not inclined to say a crooked instrument, not just because hooked does not mean crooked in the figurative sense, but because Bob Cratchit was as honest as the day is long, and crotchet makes me think of him). From this, it came to have the figurative meaning of a pet conceit, perverse pertinacity, whimsical fancy, or similar insistent digression – typically on a small point – from popular opinion. And it came to refer to a quarter note. Some suggest that the “whimsical conceit” sense had some base in the musical sense; others see in the old shape of a quarter note (more like a lozenge or diamond on a stem rather than the circle or oval you see now) something sufficiently close to a hook (though I do think eighth notes look more hooklike).

It is from the “perverse pertinacity” sense of crotchet, anyway, that we get crotchety. It is not now used to mean “tending to follow flights of fancy” or “waywardly whimsical”; rather, and I’m inclined to think thanks in some measure to the sound of it, we use it to mean “cranky” – the pertinacity is specifically that of negativity, whether the crotchety person be a witch, bitch, curmudgeon, or other frictionable person with an alveopalatal affricate (“ch”, “j”) – the sort of person who makes you say, “Tch!” But it must be duly noted that they won’t give you quarter.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for mentioning this one.