The Whole Gamut

There’s a nice article on oxforddictionaries.com at the moment about foreign words and musical notes, explaining why we use so many Italian words like piano, adagio, staccato and crescendo in our musical vocabulary. Another musical word that cropped up in my work recently was gamut, although it’s not a word you think of as having musical origins.

Nowadays, we use gamut particularly in the phrase the whole gamut, meaning ‘the complete range or scope of something’ but it is a very odd sounding little word.

It was first used in English in the 1520s to refer to the lowest note in the medieval musical scale. This medieval scale was made up of six notes: ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la. It was the predecessor of the tonic sol-fa system, Julie Andrews’ favourite, which consists of doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te.

It was a medieval monk called Guido de Arezzo (Italian, incidentally) who came up with the scale. He chose syllables to represent each note based on the Latin hymn to St John, ‘Ut queant laxis’.

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum

Solve polluti labii reatum,

Sancte Iohannes

The lowest tone that was recognised in medieval musical theory at that time was bass G an octave and a half below middle C, which was also known as gamma. Put gamma and the first note in Guido’s system together and you get gamma ut.

Eventually, gamma ut merged into gamut and it came to refer to Guido’s whole system rather than just that one note. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump before it came to mean scale or scope more generally.

Murder mystery

Last weekend was ‘Agatha Christie Weekend’ here, the town where the much loved murder mystery writer spent most of her life and which is also the location of her grave. It seems only right to pay homage to the queen of crime by unravelling some of the word mysteries out there.

Firstly, mystery itself is quite mysterious. It originates from the Greek myein, which mean ‘to close, shut’ and comes from the same family as mute. It seems like a big step from this word to the current mystery, meaning ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’.

But the Greek term gave way to other Greek words: mystes, ‘one who has been initiated’, and mysterion, ‘secret rite or ceremony’. In a mysterion, a new priest would be initiated and become a mystes. He would have to keep his lips shut, that is, refrain from revealing the secrets of the initiation ceremony to others. From there, the word went through the usual journey of Latin and Old French before entering English in the 14th century. We also borrowed the word mystic from the same root.

Murder, on the other hand, is an open-and-shut case. It is of Germanic origin, with the original Old English term being morthor. It can be traced way back to an Indo-European root, whose descendents gave Sanskrit mará and Latin mors. Those who studied romance languages in school will recognise the cognates muerte in Spanish and mort in French. All of which mean ‘death’.

What’s more enigmatic is blue murder as in to cry blue murder, ‘to make an extravagant and noisy protest’. Why should murder have a colour? Does blue here refer to cold, as in murder in cold blood? Or is the crier screaming until they’re blue in the face?

There are a number of theories out there. One suggests that since another variant of the phrase is to cry bloody murder, blue here is a minced oath, a polite way of avoiding swearing by using another word that sounds quite similar.

Alternatively, in the 17th century, blue was used to describe someone who was terrified, so to cry blue murder would be to shout loudly with fear or make a terrified protest.

Another theory suggests that blue here refers to blue-blooded royals. Since to murder a royal would by an extremely grave – and difficult – crime, crying blue murder is to accuse someone of a very serious crime, leading to the idea of making a serious protest.

Then there’s the idea that blue can be used as an intensifier, as in blue blazes and blue funk. So the exclaimer is not only screaming about murder, but blue murder, hence the extravagance and noisiness of the protest.

But my favourite theory, whether it’s the right one or not, is that blue murder is a literal translation of the French minced oath: morbleu. When something terrible happened, the French could exclaim ‘mort Dieu!’, meaning ‘God’s death!’. (NB This might seem like a surprising form of blasphemy but it’s actually quite common – zounds, ‘sblood and gadzooks in English came from ‘God’s wounds’, ‘God’s blood’ and ‘God’s hooks’, ie nails on the cross, respectively.) The French avoided saying Dieu by using bleu as a minced oath, just as how sacré Dieu, ‘sacred God’, became sacré bleu. Thus mortbleu would be used as an exclamation of astonishment and English speakers thought it was a good enough phrase to adopt too.