In a Word: Antique Antics

The ancient antics of the Romans led to two words from the same source.

Portion of a Roman painting
(Shutterstock)

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Considering how alike the words are, it should come as no great surprise that the words antic and antique are etymologically related. The surprising part is how widely the words’ meanings have diverged. Both words trace back to the same Latin root, but they wended their way into English from two other European languages. That Latin root is antiquus (later appearing as anticus) “old, ancient, venerated.”

In French, where it became antique by the 14th century, the word retained its meaning of just “old.” By the early 16th century, the word found its way into English texts with this meaning, though not often with the French -ique ending.

Meanwhile, in Italy, archeologists were uncovering a number of important ancient Roman sites — bathhouses, homes, and the like — that would send ripples through Renaissance art. The paintings they found on walls and ceilings at these sites were different from the art of the time, featuring unrealistic characters, sometimes half man and half animal, performing strange, unexpected acts.

Because these were old paintings, they were described with the adjective antico, the Italian equivalent to the French antique. But over time, antico came to describe the bizarre and playful depictions within the paintings rather than the age of the artwork. Any behavior or item that was considered peculiar or strange was called antico.

This was the meaning of the word when it was adopted into English as antick (or antyke), which first appeared in English texts in the early 16th century. (The word grotesque followed a similar course at approximately the same time, but we’ll save that for another day.)

Early on, these two words were often not only homographs, but homophones — that is, they were not only spelled the same but pronounced the same as well. The words diverged in standard usage at the beginning of the 18th century, and antique took on the French spelling and pronunciation. And today, we can laugh at the playful, buffoonish antics of clowns, comedians — and even antique collectors.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Bob,

    I think there’s a subtle difference — maybe not so subtle — between antique and vintage, especially when it comes to cars. Most of the “vintage” cars you see are car shows have been restored, so there aren’t a whole lot of “antique” parts still in them. I also think a vintage car is one you can drive around in, but an antique car is one you’d just look at.

    Hmm. I will consider a future post exploring the difference between these two ideas.

  2. Another interesting origin of words that seemingly have nothing in common. It does make me wonder about ants, come to think of it.

    I’ve noticed the term ‘antique’ is no longer used on a lot of old cars anymore, even though age-wise they do qualify. ‘Old’ either, unless they’re beat up. Those though generally aren’t seen at auto shows. Instead the term ‘vintage’ is used for that ’57 T-Bird, ’68 Barracuda or ’75 Monte. It’s not just for wines anymore.

    Vintage does seem more appropriate for jet-age/space-age cars than the antique ones we think of from the silent film era, that got that label when they were actually much younger than a mid-century or later car is now.

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