Enough

April 2, 2009

There is a basic terminological malaproprism in wide use that really must stop. When it appeared in today’s Paper of Record, I decided to raise my voice in protest.

Since the Middle Ages, there has been a distinction between two kinds of organs: the portative and the positive. The portative was made to be carried with one hand and played with the other, for use in processions:

portative

The positive was, and is, fixed and played (like a piano or harpsichord) in one place, with both hands:

positive

The positive might be either an independent, small instrument (as above, seen used in an orchestra) or part of a larger instrument — often hung on the gallery rail, behind the player, as with the German Rückpositiv, the French positif de dos, Spanish positivo de dos, or the English chair (or choir) organ:

groningen-martinikerk-organ

To call a positive organ, just because it can be carried around by three or four members of the Stagehands Union, a “portative organ” is to overthrow a basic distinction of many centuries’ standing. And when the most venerable music critic of the Times — with all its influence over common usage — allows himself to confuse portative with the merely portable, something must be said.

So it might as well be said here.

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