“Fort” and Other Strong Words

By Mark Nichol

Fort and other words beginning with that formidable foursome of letters have a strong heritage going back to ancient Latin. Here’s a discussion of fort and the fort- family of words.

Fort derives, through the identically spelled French word meaning “strong,” from the Latin term fortis, which has the same meaning. (That word is also the origin of force.) The variant fortress is ultimately from the Latin term fortalitia by way of the French word forteresse, meaning “strong place.” (The suffix -itia, denoting condition or quality, is also sustained in duress and largesse.) Another noun referring to a stronghold is fortification; the verb form is fortify. Fortitude refers to the characteristic of strength.

Another word, forte, has two distinct meanings based on convergent evolution from Latin. The Italian term forte, which shares fort’s etymology, is used as a music instruction in English to indicate that a composition, or part of it, should be played loudly.

The Italian term also appears in the instruction pianoforte, meaning “soft and loud.” (Piano is from the Latin word planus, meaning “even, flat, smooth”; later, the Latin word and its French descendant acquired the additional sense of “soft.” The musical instrument called the piano was originally referred to as a pianoforte because one could produce both quiet and loud notes on it.)

Forte, from the French word fort, meaning “strong point” (as of a sword blade) and acquiring the e in imitation of the Italian word, came to refer to a person’s primary skill or talent, though it still refers to the part of a blade near the hilt.

This site generally does not discuss pronunciation, but note that the common pronunciation “for-tay” erroneously reflects the Italian term, not the French word for “strong point,” which in French is pronounced “for.” However, the two-syllable punctuation is ubiquitous, and you are likely to confuse people if, when using it for this sense, you pronounce it “correctly” (“fort”).

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9 Responses to ““Fort” and Other Strong Words”

  • thebluebird11

    Grrrrr. It’s bad enough when people mispronounce “forte” (as in, “Mathematics is not my forte”) as FOR-tay. It’s even more pretentious-sounding when they reverse the accented syllable and pronounce it as for-TAY. If I confuse people by pronouncing it correctly, that is too bad. As I mentioned in a previous comment (yesterday’s post), I suffer with other people’s bizarre and erroneous constructs; they can suffer with mine, which at least have the decency to be correct!

  • Rachel Jensen

    Well, actually in Italian “forte” DOES mean strong. It grew most directly from the Latin meaning – of course! Good heavens.

    When playing, we musicians actually focus upon that meaning, its first meaning in Italian, rather than the derived, more simplistic instruction “loud” (just as “quiet” is a derivative meaning of “piano”). Psychologically it helps us produce a richer tone rather than a harsh one.

    Hence either the French, the anglicized, OR the Italian pronunciation conveys the intended meaning. Every Italian dictionary I own (and there are many of them) verifies this point, but so does a silly little online search for the translation from Italian to English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Strong words” include these examples of verbs that have principal parts that usually vary by changes in their vowels, including a good number of ones with three different vowels.
    German has many of this same type, especially verbs that start with “s”. For example: singen, sang, gesungen. “Rapunzel sang.”

    begin, began, begun
    come, came, come
    do, did, done
    drink, drank, drunk
    eat, ate, eaten
    fly, flew, flown
    give, gave, given
    go, went, gone
    know, knew, known
    lie, lay, lain
    ring, rang, rung
    see, saw, seen
    shrink, shrank, shrunk
    sing, sang, sung
    spring, sprang, sprung
    stink, stank, stunk
    sink, sank, sunk
    speak, spake, spoken**
    swim, swam, swum
    tear, tore, torn
    throw, threw, thrown

    **”Also Sprach Zarathustra” means “Thus spake Zarathustra.”

  • Janet Elder

    Isn’t “fort” (not “for”) the French pronunciation of “forte”?

  • venqax

    Isn’t “fort” (not “for”) the French pronunciation of “forte”?Yes, or it would be if the French word were, in fact, forte. I think he was saying that the “real” relevant Fr. word is “fort”– so said “for”– and that the forte spelling is actually mistakenly taken from the Italian….”acquiring the e in imitation of the Italian word”…

  • venqax

    bluebird: “If I confuse people by pronouncing it correctly, that is too bad.”

    AMEN! I am thoroughly tired of dumbing things down so as not to “confuse” the semi-literate.

    Lingerie is not “lon-jer-ay”. It is not your larnix. It is not a cumber bun. It is not a COMP- troller. No one’s name is Egzavier. My fingers are throbbing even writing this!

  • Hamide Rahal

    indeed so far so good

  • thebluebird11

    @Venqax: LMAO. Butcherism is alive and well in medical terminology: Along with larnix, I hear pharnix, nucular, and too many other medical terms to list (since I am not in DAW mode). I actually had a neurology instructor who said “desiccation” instead of decussation, and when I mentioned it to him, he got this frozen fury look on his face. I was afraid he would fail me for the course so I never corrected any of his mistakes ever again.
    But now that you mention Egzavier…I remember as a kid, neighbors who went to local Catholic schools, St. Xavier, Xaverian, and so forth. There was an older boy who went to St. Aloysius (I remember seeing his sweatshirt), and in my mind I pronounced it A-LOY-zee-us. I can’t tell you how old I was when I discovered the correct pronunciation but honestly it was not that long ago. Luckily, I never had to say that name out loud!

  • venqax

    bluebird: When my second grade son told me there was a boy in his new class named (as the boy pronounced it) Egzavier, I told him to say “Hello, I’m BeeBrandon and this is my brother JayJames.

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