I’m trying to understand the proper spelling of the full name of the cello. I’ve seen it both of these ways, violincello and violoncello.

I thought since the cello is part of the violin family it would be violincello, but it seems some places are saying it is only violoncello (including my spellchecker). https://www.lawprose.org/garners-usage-tip-of-the-day-violoncello/ https://www.magle.dk/music-forums/threads/what-is-a-violincello.3813/

But some places seem to use it interchangeably. (Potentially due to oversight?) https://www.bartleby.com/essay/The-Physics-and-Science-of-the-Violoncello-P3C6SKGSVC https://www.freethesaurus.com/Violincello

It appears there are many instances in German where they say Violincello: https://www.linguee.com/german-english/translation/violincello.html

I’ve seen it both ways on sheets of music, so maybe it’s a mistake to think how I did with it being part of the violin family, and lots of people make that mistake. But if enough people make the mistake, would it simply become the new norm? Has it already become the new norm? If it hasn’t, because of this common mistake, is it likely to be destined to become the new norm? That’s how all words tend to evolve anyway.

Bottom line, is it ignorant to say violincello, or is it progressive? Should we fight and always make sure to use violoncello?

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    IMHO the most progressive is to write “cello” Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 18:55
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    "I thought since the cello is part of the violin family it would be violincello", note that, in some Latin languages - at least in French - it is spelled "violon" hence the "violoncelle".
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 18:57
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    Based on the links you've given, it seems pretty clear that you're getting search results from / about people who simply don't know how to spell "violoncello." If you've "seen both on paper," then you've met composers who can't spell, despite the existence of google. We all do this, I guess. I'm a great speller generally, but it wasn't until my 20s that I realized that "seperate" wasn't a word. Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 21:10
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    If you have a large enough corpus, you will find misspellings. It is also "Violoncello" in German. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violoncello
    – Carsten S
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 8:57
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    I am German speaking and never saw the spelling violincello before. i think thats a typo in german.
    – tommsch
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 9:51

4 Answers 4


... part of the violin family...

Actually, as baroque violists love to point out, during the early evolution of these instruments, both violin and cello were part of the viola family. The viola was the default instrument, the violino was the "little" version (adding the diminutive suffix -ino), and the violone was the "big" version. Because they used unwound gut strings, even a violone with a sounding range similar to a modern cello would be much larger, comparable to a modern double bass. Eventually, "wound" strings, with a winding of metal over the gut, came into use; as this string has more mass, it can get a lower sounding pitch from a shorter string, and this let us shrink the size of the violone (sometimes literally cutting a chunk out of an existing instrument and reassembling). Violoncello comes as a diminutive of violone—the "little" version of the "big" version of an instrument. This explains the "o"; frankly (hehe) I can't explain the Germanic usage of "violincello," but I'll let someone with better German than me address that.

(Edit: I feel compelled to note that the above is a grossly simplified narrative. The sixteenth-century bass members of both the viol and viola families were wildly diverse (4 strings, 5 strings, with or without frets and endpins, sounding at pitch or an octave below), and Praetorius' Syntagma Musica shows that some were similar in scale to the modern cello. But the big picture holds true: Innovations in gut string manufacture enabled smaller scale bass instruments.)

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    No German peculiarities are involved, since the word seems purely Italian. Violincello is simply wrong in German, and the counterexamples from the question may be badly translated.
    – guidot
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 20:18
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    More precisely, they were part of the viola da braccio family, as opposed to the viola da gamba family: "arm viol" rather than "leg viol." This explains the German name for the viola, Bratsche.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 21:59
  • I remember that when I lived in New Haven there was a bassist in one of the Yale orchestras who had a contrabass with straight shoulders like a violin-family instrument (braccio-family instrument?). It was an odd sight to see him playing this huge violin! It was especially easy to think of it as such when sitting in the nosebleed seats. Only then did I realize that modern contrabasses are (normally) built like gamba-family instruments; I suppose this also explains the fact that some bassists use an underhand bowing technique.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 18:22


It's violoncello.

Language considerations

Lots of classical music words usually have a specific language as their origins (mostly Italian), so, unless an extended literature can confirm standard spelling practice that altered the original word in other languages (that's how languages evolve), the original spelling is to be considered as the proper one: in this case, Italian.

Even the sibling Italian Wikipedia page (or any standard translation) of Cello would report the correct spelling: Violoncello.

Music is full of "loanwords" (as standard terms borrowed from other languages), most of them are Italian, some French or German, and almost all of them share a Latin root. What you should look for is for:

  1. actual (and most common) origin of the word;
  2. current spelling in that language:
  3. possible standardization and adaptations in other languages;

Some examples:

  • "Ouverture" (from French), usually leaving out the "u": "Overture";
  • "Adagetto" (Italian slightly diminutive form of "less slow than Adagio"), commonly written as "Adagietto"; note that the modern italian rule says that -gi (or -ci) becomes -gie (-cie) and not -ge (-ce) only when the g is following a consonant and when the i is not accented, but there are still some words that ignore that rule: valigia (suitcase) -> valigie, camicia (shirt) -> camicie;
  • "Leggero", often written as with the antique form of "Leggiero";
  • all extreme augmentatives, like "Fortississimo" or "Pianississimo": the italian rule says that the augmentative (-issim*) should always be added in full form, so the correct forms should be "Fortissimissimo" or "Pianissimissimo", but the reduced forms are not unheard even from italian speakers (I heard a lot of them in the Italian speaking regions of Switzerland, but they also have their own version of italian for many words);
  • lots of plural forms (like "Tempo") that use the original word extended by the language rules ("Tempos" instead of "Tempi");

While some of the above terms and variations are now considered almost standard convention, a proper score should try to follow the original language those terms come from, unless extensive usage is now considered as proper for the intended writing language of that score: if you want to write expression markings in German language, you should follow the musical german convention (consider Wagner markings, for instance); this means that if you're writing text markings in English, you should use Cello.

So, if your writing uses a German notation text, you could use "Violincello". Otherwise, "Violoncello" (or "Cello", which is not uncommon even in italian) should be the preferred form: this considers what correctly pointed out before: the "original" instrument is Viola (etymology: 'Vi-tu-la -> 'Viu-la, with the accent on the first syllable), with the Violon[e] as the bigger version of it, and the -cello suffix used to indicate a slightly smaller version of the bigger one: Viola -> Viol-one -> Viol-on-cello. The -*ello suffix doesn't always have a "c", and it depends on usage, but it mostly indicates a lighter - and often "funnier" - version of the original word (similarly to -etto, like "allegretto").

This is pretty common in Italian: take for instance the "Calzone" ("big sock" or "big trouser") that is a folded version of pizza, and often becomes a "Calzoncello" to indicate a slightly smaller version of it, but not as small as the one commonly known as "Calzoncino": a big sock/trouser ("calza"/"calzone") that's considered standard, made smaller but not enough to be a "normal" sock/trouser.
There are other words that follow similar rules, such as "venticello" (small wind), "orticello" (small home kitchen garden), "alberello" (a small tree).

So, yes, it's just "Violoncello". As a "Violincello" would indicate a slightly smaller version of a violin, but probably bigger than a "small violoncello". Which could also indicate a "Violoncello piccolo".

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    Fully appreciating the layout of this answer.
    – Nils Munch
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 16:40

If you consult a monolingual Italian dictionary (e.g. Devoto-Oli), you'll find that violoncello derives from viola plus an augmentative suffix (accrescitivo in Italian, abbreviated acc.) (i.e., a "big viola").

Treccani online will confirm:

violoncèllo s. m. [der. di viola2]. (Derivation of viola2) (Note: the è does not appear in the written word--it's used in dictionaries to distinguish the vowel sound--for those Italians who pronounce an open and closed E differently.)

m-w's etymology states violoncello came from violone.

My monolingual Zanichelli Italian dictionary seems to contradict itself. It says that violoncello is from violone and existed before 1400, but dates the headword violone only to 1546.

There is no *violincello in Italian or English. Violone also derives from viola. (In this case, -one is the augmentative.)

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    Precisely, as explained in the other answer, violoncello is derived from violone and violone and violino are both derived from viola. Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 9:50
  • @DenisNardin See my edits regarding Zanichelli's take.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 11:08
  • I had to check my own dissertation to remember, but it looks like the first appearance of the word violoncello is in 1665 in Giulio Cesare Arresti's Sonate à 2. & à Tre Con la parte di Violoncello a Beneplacito, Op. 4 (Venice, 1665). If you'll excuse me linking my own dissertation, see p. 67 ff for a shallow dive into some deep and murky waters: libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Bonner_uncg_0154D_11176.pdf Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 13:10
  • Britannica britannica.com/art/cello has "The earliest cellos were developed during the 16th century and frequently were made with five strings. They served mainly to reinforce the bass line in ensembles. Only during the 17th and 18th centuries did the cello replace the bass viola da gamba as a solo instrument. " and theinstrumentplace.com/history-of-the-cello has: "Like all the members of the violin family, the cello first emerged in Northern Italy in the first half of the 16th century in the workshops of famous instrument makers like Andrea Amati and Gasparo da Salo. "
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:51
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    In fact, I was thinking of posting there about the etymology earlier today. But to answer the OP's question, clearly the Italian word was brought into English without a change in spelling.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 17:19

As other answers have pointed out the etymology of the instrument's name shows that "violoncello" is correct, not violincello, and the "o" spelling is correct in English, Italian, French and German.

There are a number of references to "violincello", but most can be explained as spelling or typographical errors. The Bartleby essay mentioned by OP begins with the "o" spelling and uses the "i" spelling a few lines later without any explanation - it is most likely a mistake. The German samples linked to can all be explained as spelling or typing errors. It is worth noting that the "I" and "O" keys are adjacent in the keyboard layouts for all four languages. The Free Dictionary thesaurus entry show that the "i" spelling appears often enough to show some people accept it, but note that the dictionary entry for "cello" says it is short for "violoncello".

There is a website violincello.com. It belongs to a manufacturer of stringed instruments including violins and 'cellos; here "violincello" is clearly a composite word.

The name "cello" is well-established as the English name for the instrument. In my view people who care about the origin of the name should know the true story.

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