Printable Version
Pronunciation: o-vêr-ton Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A musical tone that is higher than the harmonic series and may be heard with it. 2. A subtle implication, a hint, a connotation implied by a statement that does not express it directly.

Notes: Here is a word whose secondary figurative sense is more often encountered than its original literal one. It is a lexical spinster with no derivational offspring. Overtonic and Overtonics are words made up as names of a research project and a band, respectively.

In Play: Though less often heard, musicians still understand this kind of talk: "The music was a complex combination of rich chords, each with its own harmonic overtones." More often we hear it used as a statement with ulterior motives: "His mother's request that Henry clean his room had overtones of a threat." It may also be used in the sense of "a hint, suggestion": "Some red wines are said to have overtones of chocolate."

Word History: Today's Good Word is obviously a compound made up of over + tone. Over we have encountered several times. It came from PIE (s)uper "over, beyond", the same source as German über, Danish and Norwegian over, and Swedish över. The PIE word began with a Fickle S that came and went as it pleased. for we find Latin super and Greek hyper (from an original uper). The English lexicon has made great use of both these as prefixes. Tone was borrowed from French ton "musical sound, manner, way", handed down from Latin tonus "a sound, tone, accent". Latin borrowed the word from Greek tonos "a stretching, tightening, taut string" from teinein "to stretch" from PIE root ten-/ton- "to stretch". English tenor came from the same source via pretty much the same path. (Now let's thank David Myer of Melbourne, Australia, an active contributor and participant in the Agora for more than a decade, for today's musical Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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