This week, we witnessed some grand finales in “Mad Men” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” A finale is all about the ending, of course, but what do we know about the word’s beginning?
Finale starts in English as a musical term adopted from the Italian. The Oxford English Dictionary cites it in 1724 as an Italian word in English and fully taken up by 1783 to name the last movement of a musical piece (e.g., a symphony). It was quickly generalized to other types of endings (e.g., plays) and to endings as such not long after.
The Italian finale comes from the Latin fīnālis, an adjective form of fīnis, an “end,” “purpose,” “limit,” and “goal,” and, at its core, a “boundary” or “border.” Eric Partridge specifies the particular usage of the Latin etymon as the “limit or boundary of a field or a farm or an estate,” with its plural form, fīnes, describing “the boundaries of a large territory” or “the frontiers of a country or a state.”
And this is about the limit of our knowledge of finale. Partridge suggests that fīnis may have originally referred to a “mark on a tree,” with “trees often serving as limits of field” or a “stake driven into the ground to mark a boundary.” If this is the case, fīnis could be derived (and nasalized) from figere, “to fix” or “fasten,” and source of fix, among many other words.
But fīnis doesn’t end here. It also eventually produced (largely through French) a seemingly infinitude of English words. To name a mere few: finish, fine, finance, affinity, confine, finesse, finicky, and, dear to word nerds like me, definitions.