2. (often overtones) A subtle or subsidiary quality, implication, or connotation:


1.1. An underlying quality or feeling:

Are these meanings identical? What's the phenomenon or oddity called, where two words with opposite prefixes (not necessarily just over- vs under-) surprisingly mean alike? Would someone please explain the "paradox" here?

  • I feel like an overtone would be a universal thing, something that everyone in the room would pick up on. An undertone would be less noticeable and perhaps only felt by a few people in this "room" – totallyuneekname Aug 10 '14 at 16:45
  • I think subtle and subdued don't mean quite the same thing. – Damkerng T. Aug 11 '14 at 1:25

According to http://grammarist.com/usage/overtones-undertones/ your understanding of the common usage of these terms is correct.

Grammarist.com does point out that when these terms are used as musical jargon, they have distinct meanings. According to Grammarist.com, overtones are higher-pitched harmonics, whereas undertones are hushed noises.

It seems to me that it is a coincidence that these synonyms have opposite prefixes. Other prefixes (like "side") could have been used, but were not. ("Sideband" and "overtone" have similar technical definitions.)

Both technical meanings are similar in that they refer to secondary noises that can be hard to notice, but are present if you listen for them. The common usage of these terms emphasizes this meaning, so they are synonyms in common usage.

Each technical meaning has a plausible reason for using the prefix it uses. "Overtone" uses "over" in the sense of "higher", and "tone" in the sense of "pitch". "Undertone" uses "under" in the sense of "less loud", and "tone" in the sense of "audible noise".

"Oxymorons" are similar to this kind of paradox.

  • I would not be surprised if the technical meaning of "undertone" is "a lower pitched harmonic". For example, a 440 Hz note could have overtones of 880 Hz and 1320 Hz, and undertones of 110 Hz and 220 Hz. If the source is driven at 440 Hz, both the overtones and the undertones would tend to be less loud than the 440 Hz tone. – Jasper Aug 10 '14 at 21:07
  • But it is not. You misunderstand what a harmonic is: there are no harmonics under a fundamental. Google the topic for more info, then take the question to music.SE if you still need more help understanding harmonics. – Codeswitcher Sep 14 '14 at 17:57

The figurative uses of "tone" here, to describe something that may have nothing to do with sound, are not exactly opposites in the way you suggest.

An undertone is a pervasive yet not overt quality that does not jibe with outward appearances.

He said it with a smile, his hand affably resting on my shoulder, but there was an undertone of menace in his voice.

The hall was festooned with garlands and balloons, but an undertone of heaviness and gloom filled the room.

An overtone is a secondary quality that may be evanescent or very subtle.

The wine had a crisp minerality; it tasted of slate with pear overtones.

  • +1 The two examples of the dictionary that I referred to used "undertone" in negative contexts. "Overtone" was not in positive contexts either. – learner Oct 22 '14 at 21:02

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