17 January 2024

Word for the day: fermata

Today I was reading an essay by Rachel Kushner about the personal management of time, which included this passage:
Nabokov’s character Van Veen, from Ada, suggests that he is “an epicure of duration,” who “delight[s] sensually in Time.” Veen’s “greatest discovery,” Nabokov later said, was “his perception of Time as the dim hollow between two rhythmic beats . . . not the beats themselves, which only embar Time.” What Nabokov describes in his typically florid style, without naming it, is the fermata. A simple but profound music notation, a fermata on a note or rest stops time between beats, freeing the musician (or conductor) to decide when it ends. On my own fourteen-mile fermata, from the town of Las Terrenas to Salto El Limón, I passed on foot through clusters of modest little houses with tin roofs. I saw people, a woman in hair curlers cooking on charcoal briquettes, and people saw me, the men in faded military uniforms who stopped to offer me a ride in their jeep. I refused their offer, and was abandoned back into my solitary pursuit.
What a wonderful new word.  
Fermata is the Italian name for the sign (𝄐), which in English is commonly called a Pause, and signifies that the note over which it is placed should be held on beyond its natural duration. It is sometimes put over a bar or double bar, in which case it intimates a short interval of silence. [examples in the image embedded above].
The Wikipedia entry has some clickable audio examples of incorporating fermatas into music, but no discussion of usage of the word beyond the realm of music.  The word is not in my compact OED, and the only non-musical use I could find was in Wiktionary, where (as an Italian word) is designates "a stop" (where passengers get on and off).

But I like Rachel Kushner's usage.  I think I need to spend more time "pausing" rather than constantly going from point A to point B to get things done.  If anyone wonders why I'm staring off into the distance to ponder a scene or the meaning of life, it will be because I'm in a personal fermata.


  1. Perhaps you'd be interested in hearing about somata as well?

  2. Nicholson Baker wrote a book called The Fermata about a man who could stop time. It was written in the early 1990s; I suspect it would now be considered problematic at the least.

    1. Excellent. 3 copies in our library, nobody on the waiting list. Looking forward to reading it, because I've often fantasized about stopping time. "Problematic" will not be a problem.

  3. The Fermata is also a 1994 bestseller erotic novel by Nicholson Baker. It's s the story of Arno Strine, a temporary typist who can stop time and uses that ability to remove women's clothes.

  4. From etymonline.com:
    fermata (n.)
    1876, musical term indicating a pause or hold, Italian, literally "a stop, a pause," from fermare "to fasten, to stop," from fermo "strong, fastened," from Latin firmus "strong; stable" (from suffixed form of PIE root *dher- "to hold firmly, support").

    Figuratively, holding back time/tempo.

  5. more than a few music focused stores & catalogs carried t-shirts with images of the symbol and this text: I'm a Fermata. Hold me.


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