The previous posting about the word tenure sprang from my watching a televised Los Angeles Times Festival of Books session about the FBI. Later in the same session, the similar word tenor also came up, so it’s appropriate to mention that it, too, is based on the Latin verb for ‘to hold,’ tenere, the predecessor of Spanish tener. From tenere came the Latin noun tenor, which Spanish and English have both borrowed. The Latin original meant ‘a holding on, a holding fast,’ and then by extension ‘an uninterrupted course, a sustained movement’ and ‘a way of proceeding.’ English tenor preserves those meanings, as we can see in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
A subsequent meaning English meaning of tenor is, as the Macmillan Dictionary explains, ‘the feeling, mood, or main message that you get from a book, person, situation, etc.’ And yet another sense of tenor, borrowed from the Italian cognate tenore, is ‘a high male voice.’ The historical explanation for that seemingly unrelated meaning traces back to the ‘uninterrupted course’ or ‘sustained movement’ in certain musical pieces in the 1300s: the sustained melody in those pieces happened to be carried by a high male voice, which therefore came to be known as a tenor voice. English also uses tenor as a synecdoche for ‘a man who has that type of high voice.’
Spanish shares the musical sense of tenor, and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española also notes the more abstract senses of tenor as ‘constitución u orden firme y estable de algo’ and ‘contenido literal de un escrito u oración.’ In contrast, the Spanish tenorio that means ‘a womanizer’ is etymologically unrelated; it comes from Don Juan Tenorio, a character created in the 1600s by the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina in the play El Burlador de Sevilla. Despite the lack of a linguistic connection, many an operatic tenor has had the reputation of being a tenorio.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman