Word of the Week: Descant

Descant – Delightful Discourses

Descant: what a word.

With its seven unassuming and fairly average letters, this term has three meanings as a noun alone, and a further one as a verb.

Its primary use is as musical jargon, meaning ‘an independent treble melody sung or played above a basic melody’. Lovely. But it gets properly exciting when Oxford Online English Dictionary gives its two literary forms. Though unfortunately this expression is now archaic, a ‘descant’ could mean ‘a melodious song’, which is certainly reminiscent of the language of Romantic literature.

As a noun, however, it can also mean ‘a discourse on a theme’ and hence, as a verb, ‘to talk tediously or at length’. The former is especially pleasing when we consider the associations of sweet music which are also attached to the term, giving such ‘a discourse’ an almost melodiously intelligent feel. Perhaps by the time it came to be used as a verb, people were a bit fed up of these lengthy, if lovely, sermons and addresses.

Around 1350 – 1400 ‘discant’ or ‘descaunt’ came into Middle English from the Old French ‘deschant’. This term had its origin far further back, deriving from the Medieval Latin ‘discantus’ or ‘dischantus’, meaning ‘part-song’ or ‘refrain’. The Latin ‘cantus’ simply means ‘song’, which is the origin of the English ‘chant’.

Whilst its verb form may have some slightly negative connotations, I think it would be difficult not to appreciate the special lull and melody, the remnant of its French ancestry, of this quaint little word.


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