Notes About “Note” and Its Relations

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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Note (from the Latin noun nota, meaning “note,” and its verb form notare, meaning “to mark or note”) is one of those wallflower words that serves many functions and is the basis of numerous compounds. Here’s a rundown of its uses.

The noun note has multiple senses: It refers to a condensed or informal record, a brief comment or explanation, or a comment or reference associated with a text passage. It may apply to an informal letter quickly dashed off, a brief, focused scholarly or technical essay, or a meticulously prepared diplomatic communication. (Various types of such documents include the note collective, the note diplomatique, and the note verbale.) In fiscal connotations, note might refer to a written promise to honor a debt (a promissory note is also called a note of hand), a piece of paper money (also called a banknote), or a corporate or government bond.

Note also means simply “a piece of paper,” one on which a message has been written, and people frequently write or speak of producing a note of appreciation or a note of sympathy. It’s also the basis of notelet, the technical name for the format of the greeting card.

Figurative senses are of a characteristic feature (such as when a wine is described as having “a note of oak”), an analogy to the tone or resonance of a communication or an event (for example, as used in the phrases “a note of regret” or “ended on a low note”). It also denotes distinction or reputation (as in “a personage of note”) and is used in such phrases as “taking note.”

A note, too, is a symbol that identifies the length and pitch of a tone, as well as the sound itself. The adjective note-perfect refers to a flawless music performance, and something notable or noteworthy is deserving of attention. As a verb, note means “notice or pay attention,” or “say or write.”

Note is combined with various other words to form compounds: notebook, notepad, notepaper (but “note card”). The act of recording information is note-taking. (The insertion of the hyphen serves to prevent the visual confusion engendered by notetaking, though the noun form notetaker does not align with that style.) Several open and closed compounds exist for fiscal terms of art, such as “note payable” and “note receivable,” “note broker,” and noteholder.

Words and compounds derived from the Latin root include notary (from notarius, meaning “clerk” or “secretary”) and “notary public,” the phrase denoting an official witness to the signing of a legal document (sometimes shortened to notary; either “notary publics” or “notaries public” serves as the plural form). The associated verb and noun forms are notarize and notarization; the office or state of being a notary is notaryship, and the adjective is notarial.

Latin phrases preserved in English usage include two signals for special attention: “nota bene” (“note well,” often abbreviated n.b.) and notandum (“something to be noted”). Meanwhile, notae tironianae (Latin for “Tironian notes”) is a system of shorthand said to have been invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, scribe to Roman orator and statesman Cicero.

Notation is any symbolic system for presenting information; notate and notative are the verb and adjectival forms. “Note of exclamation” and “note of interrogation” are alternatives to “question mark” and “exclamation point.”

Closed compounds with note as the second element include headnote, sidenote, and footnote, which refer to comments or references formatted at the top, side, or bottom of a page. Sidenote and footnote are also used figuratively to refer, respectively, to a digression or a trivial role (a person who fails to achieve greatness or an incident of only passing significance might be identified as a footnote in history). Keynote, meanwhile, denotes the most important idea or part of something (often seen in reference to a presentation or a speech considered the highlight of a conference).

I often use connote (“note with”) and denote (“thoroughly note”) in discussions of definitions: To connote is to imply or suggest, whereas to denote is to specifically indicate. (The noun forms are connotation and denotation.) These verbs supplanted the now-obsolete words connotate and denotate, but to annotate (“note to”) is to add comments or notes; the product of such an effort is an annotation. (Editions of literary works that provide contextual notes are described as annotated works.)

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