Lexical Investigations: Art

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.)Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


Have you ever wondered why Bachelor of Arts degrees can be earned in fields that aren’t arty? Arts here refers to the liberal arts, so-called because they were considered important skills for free citizens in classical antiquity. Free people were expected to receive well-rounded educations, unlike slaves, who might receive technical training in a specific skill. In medieval Europe, the liberal arts–also called the seven sciences–included grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy.

“Artifice” originally referred to anything manmade and is related to art by the sense of craft or skill. Because anything shaped by man is inherently manipulated, and not entirely natural, art and “artifice” developed associations with cunning, trickery, and deceit in the 1600s. “Artifice” has maintained this sense of falsity, whereas art soon developed the sense of creative endeavors such as painting and sculpting.

Related Quotations:

“Either art is obscure, or the quickest capacity dull, and needeth method, as it were the bright moon, to illuminate the darksome night; but practice is the bright sun that shineth in the day, and the sovereign planet that governeth the world, as elsewhere I have copiously declared.”

—Gabriel Harvey, Four Letters, and Certain Sonnets (1592)

“More matter, with less art.”

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2 (c 1600)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

— Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” first published in The New Yorker (1976)

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