Adventures in Etymology – Crotchet (♩)

In this adventure we investigate the origins of the word crotchet and related things.


A crotchet [ˈkɹɒtʃ.ɪt] is:

  • A musical note one beat long in 4/4 time (♩), also known as a quarter note in the USA
  • A forked support or crotch
  • A square bracket []

Historically it meant:

  • A sharp curve or crook; a shape resembling a hook
  • A hook-shaped instrument
  • A whim or a fancy.

It comes from Middle English crochet (hook, crook, hooked staff), from Old French crochet (small hook) from croc (hook, hook-shaped weapon), from Frankish *krōk- (hook), or Old Norse krókr (hook), from Proto-Germanic *krōkaz (hook) [source].

Words from the same roots include crochet and crook in English, crúca (hook, crook, clutch, claw) in Irish, and crochet (hook, square bracket, fang) and croche (quaver / eighth note) in French [source].

The musical note was apparently called a crotchet because it had a small hook on its stem in old musical notation. In modern notation it’s the quaver (eighth note) that has the hook (a.k.a. tail) ♪.

Incidentally, quaver comes from Middle English quaven, cwaiven (to tremble), from Old English *cwifer, which is probably related to cwic (alive, living, intelligent, keen) [source].

Here’s an example of some crotchets, quavers and other musical notes in action in a tune I wrote a few years ago called Dancing on Custard played by me on the harp:

You can find a score for it on MuseScore – this is not exactly the same as the recording.

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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