A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (89)?…


Strike a chord

When we use this phrase we generally mean that something provokes a memory or evokes some form of an emotional response.

The literal meaning of the phrase, not unsurprisingly, comes from the world of music. When the key of a piano is pressed and, indeed, when a note on a stringed instrument is played, the string vibrates at a certain rate. This vibration can cause other stings to vibrate too, usually those whose harmonics are most in common with the note played, a phenomenon known as sympathetic vibration or sympathetic resonance.

The Paduan, Bartolomeo Cristofori, is credited with the development of the modern day piano at the turn of the 18th century.  His instrument was called un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte – you can see where pianoforte came from. Much louder than other keyboard instruments the piano soon became the instrument of choice for public performances.

An early example of the literal use of our phrase came in William Holder’s A Treatise of the Natural Grounds and Principles of Harmony of 1731. In discussing the unity of motions in musical strings which were harmoniously sounding, he wrote, “to this purpose strike a chord of a sounding instrument and at the same time, another chord supposed to be in all respects equal…”

Music has the ability to stir the emotions and so, perhaps, it was a natural development for our phrase to be used figuratively but this did not occur until the start of the 19th century. This figurative usage appears in a French translation of extracts from English periodicals called Bibliotheque Britannique of 1797 as “vibrer une corde sensible”. possibly the first extant usage of the phrase in printed form in English appeared in the Boston Weekly Magazine of August 1803, “I am now in perfect  good humour with all the world and will not, by peeping into these letters, run the risk of striking a chord, which not being in unison with my present feelings, might put the whole machine out of tune”.

There are a number of usages in the first decade of the 19th century, most of which are associated with vibrations or musical notes. “Every successive instance of agitation in the congregation strikes  a chord in their heart” (1804), “They knew well they struck a chord whose vibrations are universally extensive” (1807)and “the tear swelled in his eye; he had struck a chord that was too moving” (1808). The figurative use of the phrase, gradually losing its association with vibration and music, was well on its way to cementing itself in our argot.

Something which touches our heartstrings is something which triggers an emotional response, often one of sadness. The word dates back to the 15th century when anatomical theory was sketchy at best and was used to describe a nerve that was supposed to sustain the heart. The great Doctor Johnson defined it in his ground-breaking lexicon of 1759 as, “the tendons or nerves supposed to brace and sustain the heart”.   

William Shakespeare had already made the leap to a figurative usage in Richard III. Queen Elizabeth responds to Richard thus, “Harp on it still shall I, till heart-strings break”. The poet, L B Flanders, used our two phrases in close proximity in 1877 in his poem Lines (Sorrow’s Music strains), “then, poet, would you strike a chord/ whose notes should penetrate the soul,/ Play on the quiv’ring heart-strings where/ Sorrow awhile hath held control”. By 1960 the Monthly Bulletin of the New York Chamber of Commerce, in its robust defence of capitalism, was able to use the two phrases, “These are the heart-strings upon which business can play to strike a chord..” But the genesis of the two terms was completely independent of each other.

So now we know!


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