Allan Curry writes: “What’s to account for the ubiquity of the word resonate, once largely confined to the concert hall, now more (and more) often used to suggest receptivity (to an idea, a political message, etc)?”
Twenty years ago in this space, William Safire pegged resonate as a “vogue word” that had “gone out of control” in the 1980s. He said he would gladly join the crusade of a longtime correspondent, the linguist Louis Jay Herman, against resonate and other words that suffered from “pretentious overuse,” like frisson.
A quick check of the Corpus of Historical American English, an endlessly useful resource made available by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, finds that the vogue for frisson seems have peaked in the 1990s. Resonate, on the other hand, shows no sign of abatement. Among the sources collected by Davies, the frequency of resonate has risen steadily, from about two appearances per million words during its supposed heyday in the 1980s, to more than five per million in the past decade.
For most of its history in English, resonate led a peaceful life. Its Latin root, resonare, meaning “to make a prolonged or echoing sound,” had already entered the language by Chaucer’s time in the form resound. It was reborrowed with a more classical air as resonate in the 17th century. The word took on a more technical meaning in the science of acoustics, where resonance is understood as “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection or by the synchronous vibration of a surrounding space or a neighboring object,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.
The noun resonance and the adjective resonant first made the semantic trip from sonorous acoustic qualities to more metaphorical vibrations, suggesting a person’s sympathetic response to something — “striking a chord,” to use another musical figure of speech. In 1607, for instance, an English translation of Henri Estienne’s “World of Wonders” included the line, “So ought our hearts … to have no other resonance but of good thoughts.”
By the early 20th century, the verb resonate began to shimmer with sympathetic vibes. The O.E.D. credits H.G. Wells with the first known figurative use in 1903: “The men and women of wisdom, insight and creation, as distinguished from those who merely resonate to the note of the popular mind.” Wells wrote “resonate to,” but as the metaphorical meaning took off in later decades, the word more typically took the preposition with. Other acoustical metaphors have followed suit: if someone else’s ideas resonate with you, you could also say that the two of you are “on the same wavelength” or “in sync” (two idioms that haven’t aged particularly well, either).
There’s nothing wrong with transferring sonic lingo to the realm of personal sympathies, but if Safire and Herman found resonate hackneyed in 1990, the increased usage in the intervening years has done it no favors. These days we can blame management types in particular for overuse, as the term frequently gets hauled out to convey how “resonant leaders” connect emotionally with a team or audience. No matter what your line of work is, it’s best to use resonate sparingly if you want your words to fall on receptive ears.