Word Nerd 3: What is ‘the gamut’?

Yes, I know we all know what gamut means (except the actor who was interviewed on tv the other day and claimed his part ran the gambit of emotions), but what is a gamut? I’ve noticed a lot of people using the word lately, and it got me wondering where such a odd sounding turn of phrase came from.
Turns out it’s a medieval musical notation – a contraction of gamma ut. The lowest note on the medieval musical scale was bass G, an octave and a half below middle C. The Greek letter gamma was used to indicate bass G, and the ut indicated it was the first note in the lowest of the scales (or hexacord – because they used six note scales). So originally gamma ut referred to the lowest note in the scale, but it gradually shifted its meaning the embrace the whole range of notes used in medieval music.
No doubt if I was writing this column 600 years ago on Ye Olde Blogge, I would have been complaining about its mis-use out of musical contexts to describe emotions, or dairy products.

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One response to “Word Nerd 3: What is ‘the gamut’?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Word Nerd 3: What is ‘the gamut’ | Revise, Revise, Revise -- Topsy.com

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