Cord vs. Chord

By Maeve Maddox

Latin chorda referred to catgut used to make the strings of a musical instrument. Chorda entered French with the spelling corde and the meaning “string for a musical instrument.”

English took the word from French, but eventually dropped the e and spelled it cord.

In English, cord came to mean different kinds of string or rope. The earliest illustration in the OED (1305) shows that “a cord” could be used to bind a person hand and foot; by 1330, cord could refer to the hangman’s rope.

In modern usage, cord is string composed of several strands twisted or woven together. By cord, modern speakers usually mean a light rope–the kind used for a clothesline–or a thick string–the sort used to wrap a parcel for mailing. In earlier usage, cord could refer to the ropes of a ship.

The OED shows that cord was used as a medical term for a body part that resembles a string, for example, a ligament.

The homophones cord and chord are often confused–with good reason.

As most of the readers of DWT know by now, some of our oddest spellings were born in the 16th century thanks to helpful grammarians who wanted to “restore” Latin spellings that weren’t missing. My favorite example is the alteration of the perfectly practical English spelling dette (“something owed”) to debt, to make it “accord” with Latin debitum.

The 16th century tinkerers decided that the spelling chord should replace cord because that was closer to Latin chorda. For a time, medical writers wrote about “spermatic chords,” “spinal chords,” and “umbilical chords,” but modern medical usage prefers the spelling cord.

For a time, the spelling cord was also applied to the musical term that meant “agreement of musical sounds,” or “a combination of three or more simultaneous notes according the rules of musical harmony.”

The musical term was spelled cord for a very good reason: it was a clipping of the word accord, a verb meaning “to bring into agreement.” Musical “cords” were sounds that agreed.

As it turns out, having different spellings for each term is quite useful. The current usage is:

cord: string
chord: agreement of musical sounds

Unfortunately, some speakers get mixed up when it comes to the anatomical term “vocal cords”:

Do you want to strengthen your weak vocal chords, so you can become an amazing singer?

How to Keep Your Vocal Chords in Good Condition

Although used to sing, vocal cords are not spelled “vocal chords.”

I’ve two more factoids to share before leaving the fascinating subject of cord:

The smokeless explosive called cordite got its name from its “curiously string-like appearance.”

A quantity of wood is called a cord because it was originally measured with a string.

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8 Responses to “Cord vs. Chord”

  • ApK

    As a electric guitar player, I’m in the habit plugging the power cord before playing power chords, so I appreciate the article.

    But in passing you hit upon a pet peeve of mine:

    “Factoid?”

    Really, Maeve, “FACTOID?!?” So you mean to say you are lying to us? You mean to say those are not facts, but, like asteroids or humanoids, merely things that have the APPEARANCE of them?

    As I understand it, “factoid” was coined by Norman Mailer in 1973 as a term to deride the rumors printed as if they were facts in celebrity gossip columns about Marilyn Monroe.

    Why on Earth would would we re-purpose that term to mean “brief fact?” If we absolutely need to distinguish a little fact with any term other than the perfectly suitable term “fact” how about “factlette” or “factite” or “factesimal” or some other suffix that actually means what we intended!

    Using “factoid” to mean “fact” is, IMHO, one of those BAD shifts in meaning that we need to resist.

    See what you did…now I have to go back to bed, wake up again and not read DWT, so I can start my day off un-peeved!
    And that’s a factoid.

    ApK

  • venqax

    Actually, referencing an earlier article, we could call such things “factettes”.

  • Roberta B.

    @ApK – My thought exactly after reading DWT before bed last night, but too tired to come up with something! I like “factlette,” but how about “factid” – like tidbit, but more factual than just newsy or gossipy?

  • Roberta B.

    ….or “factlet,” an abbreviated spelling.

  • ApK

    Roberta, I believe ‘factlet’ was William Safire’s suggestion as well. Let’s use it see if it strikes a chord with folks.

  • Maeve

    Well,
    You’ve all got me hanging my head in shame. I thought “factoid” meant “a little fact.” I acquired the word from an English prof and never bothered to look it up.

    Next time I’ll just say “fact.”

    Apologies and thanks to all.

  • venqax

    The first time I ever heard (or saw, actually) factoid was on CNN. They used it for there little filler-things while switching during breaks (maybe still do). E.g.: FACTOID: More people list bacon as their favorite meat than steak and chicken combined.

  • ApK

    You’re clearly not alone, Maeve. Various news agencies and TV writers use it that way as well. Burns me up when the OCD genius nut job Sheldon Cooper on ‘Big Bang Theory’ uses it that way. That character should be the first to correct people about it!

    And when YOU, one of my word heros, use it that way, it’s like seeing Superman jaywalk. I wanted to cry ‘Say it ain’t so, Maeve!’

    And to reference another recent article: sorry for the comment hijack. Didn’t have Any Willing intention of doing so.

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