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Is there any meaningful difference between the terms undertone and overtone with regard to an utterance in the sense of an implicit meaning?

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John Satta, yours was the best explanation of the difference I've found yet so far online. A friend and I were discussing this, and we found, from your examples, that the easiest way to distinguish between the two would be to consider undertones a subconscious effort to convey a hidden meaning, and overtones would be a conscious way of conveying that meaning. – user32115 Dec 12 '12 at 4:46
up vote 5 down vote accepted

As per dictionary.com

un·der·tone    [uhn-der-tohn] Show IPA –noun

  1. a low or subdued tone: to speak in undertones.

  2. an unobtrusive or background sound: an undertone of static from the receiver.

3. an underlying quality or element; undercurrent: There was an undertone of regret in his refusal.


o·ver·tone    [oh-ver-tohn] Show IPA –noun

  1. Music . an acoustical frequency that is higher in frequency than the fundamental.

2. an additional, usually subsidiary and implicit meaning or quality: an aesthetic theory with definite political overtones.

So it would seem that undertone is more about the vocal implicit meaning of saying something and overtone is about the way something is phrased.

edited to clarify which meanings I was referring to

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With regard to the meaning in the question, I would say we were looking at use 3 of undertone and use 2 of overtone. – Orbling Dec 20 '10 at 1:17

An undertone typically refers to an implicit meaning conveyed by the manner of the utterance, that is, a literal sound in the voice that conveys the meaning. So words that are growled, hissed, or said "with an edge in the voice" carry an undertone such as anger, frustration, or sarcasm.

An overtone typically refers to an implicit meaning detected by "reading between the lines". For example, describing the consequences of certain actions in a perfectly neutral tone could still convey a threatening overtone.

So, undertone is conveyed literally by the sound of the words, while overtone is conveyed figuratively by the words themselves.

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I like John Satta's answer for overtone, but take issue with undertone.

It can mean a low pitch sound in vocal conversation, but usually it means an undercurrent. Similar to overtone, but more subversive, or hidden; more a hidden feeling from the conversation. As opposed to overtone, which is the general implication of the conversation.

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I feel that this question has been answered. However, I would like to tidy up the language.

While over and undertones are accompanying characteristics to a thing, and not the thing it's self, overtones are more conscious and intentional. Whereas undertones can be unconscious and even unwitting.

That'll do pig, that'll do.

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