What’s a ‘caesura’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: caesura….

When I saw the word caesura, I knew it meant a gap or a pause and I assumed the term to be musical. But I wasn’t sure.

I encountered it in the very fine book The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl. Here is how she used the word:

How long did I stand there? It could not have been long, but a spacious caesura of time as I waited before the bulky machine, looking through the cloudy glass over the role of grey paper, poised for it to say something.

Interestingly, it turns out that the primary definition of caesura is poetical. It is a break in a verse where one phrase ends and the following phrase begins. It may be represented by a comma, a tick, or two lines, either slashed (//) or upright (||).

The amount of time this break signifies is highly variable, ranging from — at the short end — the slightest perception of silence to — at the long end —  a full pause.

My son is a musician and my husband sings in a choir (and, come to think of it, I used to play the flute), which is perhaps why I was more familiar with the musical definition. It is considered a brief silent pause where metrical time is not counted (and when singers or musicians playing wind instruments can catch their breath). The length of a caesura is at the discretion of the conductor.

The word is Latin in origin, coming from the past participle stem of caedere, which means “to cut down.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Sept. 18/19.

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