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:
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.