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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

pitch perfect

(late 1990’s | journalese (arts) | “dead on,” “picture-perfect,” “exemplary”)

You would suspect that this term arose from music criticism, and you would be right. It doesn’t show up in Google Books before the early 1960’s, and I found no references before the mid-1980’s outside of the arts belt, mostly music (describing the ability to sing or harmonize in tune) and literature (describing dialogue). From there it gradually spread into other arts: theater, film, fashion, food and wine. It usually describes the mechanics of a performance, but it can also refer to an evocation, or even an imitation or parody. The first non-arts use I encountered in LexisNexis dates from 1984 (Newsweek): “Having delivered a pitch-perfect performance as the loyal vice president, George Bush, 60, considers himself the rightful heir to the Reagan revolution.” Here the presiding genius seems to be the drama critic. Bush believed his studied acting job deserved an encore, and he got his reward against a weak and divided Democratic party in 1988. He made the least of it, an actor cast in a role beyond his abilities giving an unconvincing performance, causing half the audience to vote with their feet at intermission.

When you use “pitch-perfect” to describe dialogue in a work of fiction, for example, what does it mean? My first thought was “true to life,” but a novel full of characters talking like real people would be unbearable: all the throat clearings, meaningless expressions, repeated phrases (I resort to “y’know, I mean” a lot myself), and verbal tics would propel the book out of our hands in no time. A more precise answer would be “using appropriate diction, phrasing, and emphasis for a character based on occupation, status, ancestry, etc.” When an actor gives a pitch-perfect performance, it has to do with accent, delivery, gait, and gestures, and other factors over which she has less control: make-up, costume, and the rest of the cast. When applied to food, I don’t know what it might mean. Masterly blending of flavors, like harmony in music? When arts critics use this phrase, it boils down to “thoroughly satisfying,” and as it appears more and more often, it risks becoming a lazy compliment — a laudatory but ultimately undefinable way of saying “I really liked it.”

I would hazard that this term to this day turns up most often among arts writers, but it is used comfortably in other fields as well, mostly politics: “Romney is pitch perfect on the economy for Republican voters” (CNN); Mike Huckabee’s “pitch-perfect [campaign tone] for Midwestern conservatives” (politico.com). The situational aspect, generally implicit in arts writing, is made explicit in these examples: the splendor of your performance depends on your audience’s ability to appreciate it. Politics is no more than another kind of drama, of course, but applying the term to politicians recalls another meaning of “pitch.” Does the campaigner have perfect pitch or a perfect pitch? Being “pitch perfect” might be a matter of delivering your pitch perfectly.

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