• cantata •
kên-tah-tê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A musical composition for chorus and orchestra based on a religious theme.
Notes: Today's word stands alone with no derivational relatives. Historically related words have clung more successfully to their original meanings. Cantatory means "related to singing or chanting" and a cantator is simply a singer, though neither of these words has been used for more than a century.
In Play: Bach is the classical composer most widely known for his cantatas: "Marian Kine and William Arami fell in love while singing the Bach cantata Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal together in the combined choirs of their churches." This word has such a narrow sense, it is difficult to use it metaphorically—but not impossible: "The birds returning raised a veritable cantata to spring in Marigold's back yard."
Word History: Today's Good Word originated as the feminine singular form of cantatus "(that which is) sung", the past participle of Latin cantare "to sing a lot". The original root of this word was something like kan- "to sing". In Greek it became eikanos and in Old English hana "rooster", the bird that sings at sunrise. The Old English word today is, ironically enough, hen, a bird that doesn't sing. In French an odd thing happened: the sound [k] (= C in Latin) became [ch] before A. The result was chanter "to sing" in French today. English borrowed this word as chant, not quite singing but close. The same thing happened to Latin carmen "song, poem": it became charme and was borrowed by English as charm, an effect singing often has on us. (We could just sing a cantata to the charming Mary Ann Tabor for suggesting today's Good Word.)
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