The answer isn't off-keyness, although I wish it were.

I am interested in the secondary meaning of something being off-key, in the sense that it is irregular or incongruous, for example: "An off-key remark" and "His remark was off-key"

Oxford Dictionaries provides this example:

You try to console her, but it feels a bit off-key: after all you’ve heard only 70% of what she’s said.

In Italian, the adjective off-key is translated by stonato, which means something is out of tune (tone = tono) and intonato.

He sang on-key/in tune = Lui era intonato
He sang off-key/out of tune = Lui era stonato

I need a noun that fits the sentence below:

A) The phrase "I transported my friend to the airport" sounds off-key, if we swap the verb, transport with "took" the _____ no longer occurs.

The Italian noun form is stonatura, below is an example of how it is used and my translation:

Quel gilet viola è una stonatura intollerabile
B) That purple waistcoat (AmEng vest) is an unbearable ____

  • What noun can fill both gaps, i.e. A and B?


Dissonance fits perfectly in example A, but much less so in B. The problem is a visual _____, because the speaker is complaining about the colour. Perhaps the purple is jarring per se or it clashes with the shirt. What noun describes this visual disharmony?

Is there a better noun than dissonance and discordance as suggested by @Mitch and @Third News to complete sentence B?

  • No, @Josh61 I want a Noun, that fits both sentences. I'm thinking there isn't one, so a suitable noun for the visual and auditory examples, I'd accept. In both cases, if the examples were translated into Italian, stonatura would fit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 12:46
  • @ermanen awkwardness fits with example A but not with B. As I mentioned previously, I doubt there is a single noun which can replace stonatura, I was hopeful, but the deafening silence is eloquent. :) But as side note, I'd never say awkwardness could describe someone's singing as being flat.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 14:57

4 Answers 4


Because of culture, not every word translates exactly with the same connotations. So there are some options.

dissonance or discord

is for two notes that sound wrong (discord also means strife).


is for two general things that just don't go well together (incongruous is the adjective)

To be 'off-key' means to be out--of-step or altogether off. There doesn't seem to be a noun for this.

  • Dissonance is good, and fits with my first example. I should have thought of that. But for the purple waistcoat or a piece of furniture being a terrible incongruity, I'm not very convinced.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 12:27
  • Not all words sound perfectly well when you change part of speech. 'incongruity' is rarer than 'incongruous': I'd prefer to say myself "The velvet purple waistcoat is incongruous with the ascot".
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 13:35

A word that can be used for both for a visual and auditory reaction is discordance:

"I transported my friend to the airport" sounds off-key, if we swap the verb, transport, with took the discordancy no longer occurs.

That purple waistcoat (AmEng vest) is an unbearable discordance

discordant 1. being at variance; disagreeing; incongruous: discordant opinions. 2. disagreeable to the ear; dissonant; harsh.

  • 1
    I know you're close, discordancy almost works but the purple waistcoat example doesn't fit (pun!).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 12:36
  • Is this your original text or another unattributed citation? Make that clear.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 1:14

I think that inconsistency may suggest the idea you are looking for:

Lack of agreement or harmony between parts of something complex; compatibility


  • Police noticed inconsistency in his two statements.

  • Customers have been complaining about the inconsistency in the quality of service they have received.

  • There is some inconsistency in her argument.

  • Careful editing of the entire text has eliminated inconsistencies of style. We noted a major inconsistency in his story.


Metaphorically, when things are not in harmony, they clash. Something that clashes can be called a mismatch.

I have generally seen the adjective to be more common that the noun. Several synonyms for clash can be found in a thesaurus.

Often, the disharmony that your example (B) might refer to can be described as an offense or an eyesore, veering off in an only slightly different direction with respect to being unharmonious in the musical sense, but still fitting with clash.

When it comes to metaphors in English (as with most languages) you won't always find that the metaphors translate directly. In this case, they translate more directly as adjectives, though. Once you have the right word, you can go directly to thesaurus, and many of the words will be suitable substitutes. Without the right word, your thesaurus might not be so valuable.

Update In your example (A), you could substitute roughness or inelegance, or synonyms of these. In this example, using a strictly aural or visual metaphor is not common. At least nothing comes to my mind as quickly as these words do.

  • I like "eyesore" for B, it fits perfectly in that example. Thank you!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 5:54
  • Is "off-key" being used as a metaphor in my examples? Isn't it an adjective and an adverb? The question begs to be asked: "How does a non native speaker know when s/he has the right word?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 6:06
  • I would say off-key is an adjective, whereas off key is a prepositional phrase / adverb modifier. (Others might disagree.) For your use of off-key, you might substitute awkward or inelegant, which are both adjectives. Yes, off-key is a metaphor based on the musical source of the term. Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 6:18
  • 1
    I should have added that hyphenation is often used to convert a phrase into an adjective. For example "My dress is ready to wear" vs. "My dress is ready-to-wear" have different meanings. Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 6:27

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