[Ads-l] pitchy = 'off-pitch'

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Wed Oct 3 03:23:11 UTC 2018

In its entry for "pitchy" (revised in 2006), OED doesn't include the
"off-pitch" sense -- a popular usage since the advent of "American Idol" in
2002. (Original "Idol" judge Randy Jackson was a fan of the word.)
Merriam-Webster has the meaning and dates it to 1997.

In this early outlier, "pitchy" seems to be used in the sense of "shrill"
(which M-W gives as a secondary definition):

Reading (Pa.) Times, Mar. 26, 1891, p. 2, col. 3
("The Deacon's Downfall," by Lansing)
'Twas well enough, he said, to let the Gloria be sung
In as many different ways as were admitted by a lung;
But when they got some woman with a high strung pitchy voice
To warble the Te Deum, why, not much! it warn't his choice.

Starting in 1986, there are several examples from Mairi MacLean, classical
music critic for the Edmonton Journal, who used "pitchy" to describe both
instruments and voices that were off-pitch:

Edmonton (Alberta) Journal, Oct. 3, 1986, p. D9, col. 1
In the second movement adagio where the the parts were more exposed, the
cello seemed pitchy for an instant or two, but solidarity was quickly
Edmonton (Alberta) Journal, Nov. 14, 1986, p. D5, col. 2
>From time to time, the bassoon stuck out in the mix, and the cello part was
slightly pitchy in higher registers.
Edmonton (Alberta) Journal, Aug. 28, 1987, p. C2, col. 1
Uncertain intonation, for example, has become more problematic. In the
Handel Concerto Grosso in F Major, the Op. 6 No. 9, which began the
program, there were several pitchy moments.

Another Canadian music journalist, John P. McLaughlin of The Province, used
the word for pop singers starting in 1994.

The Province (Vancouver, B.C.), Sep. 20, 1994, p. B5 [Proquest]
I know she's done a great deal for her Inuit people and she's had to
overcome a lot to win the recognition. But she's still a pitchy singer.
Cindy Church has no trouble with her pitch, and our own Lyndia Scott has
struggled for years in the trenches, alone and on key.
The Province (Vancouver, B.C.), Mar. 23, 1995, p. B5 [Proquest]
The mix is uneven in places and some of singer Larry MacDonald's vocals are
definitely pitchy, but I hope they sell enough to finance another album --
this time with a real producer at the board.

It started showing up in other pop-music contexts around then.

rec.music.makers.songwriting, Aug. 17, 1995
remember, SONG demos don't need long intros or instrumental rides. cut to
the chase, get to the point. and do it all in TUNE. nothing gets a tape
tossed quicker than a pitchy singer or band.
Option Magazine, 1996 (date/page unknown)
Granted her voice is less pitchy than, for example, Wilde's, but she lacks
the sheer star quality that allowed Wilde a string of pseudo-classics in
the '80s.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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