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)


  1. John Egbert -  February 13, 2013 - 2:59 pm

    Breath≈ 247
    Light☼ 15

  2. John Egbert -  February 13, 2013 - 2:41 pm

    Hero of Breath≈

  3. Giovanna -  February 11, 2013 - 9:57 am

    That is so cool……i ALWAYS wondered about that……………?

  4. Gagandeep -  February 10, 2013 - 10:04 pm

    thanx for sharing this post…..
    Its really helpful,,,,,,

  5. Khan -  February 10, 2013 - 7:56 am

    The great Pakistani poets of the time already knew science pretty well.

  6. Khan -  February 10, 2013 - 7:54 am

    Nothing too interesting, but it was nice to know. Did not bother reading that shakespears reference.

  7. TunaFish#5 -  February 8, 2013 - 6:39 am

    1. Grammar a science?!?!? Now *there’s* an antiquity….

    2. also – love the Gabriel Harvey quote.

    3. Not so sure about the Elizabeth Bishop poem. It’s too much like a mirror.

  8. Suji... -  February 7, 2013 - 8:28 pm

    The Greatest South Indian poet (Kannathasan), once said,
    “Anyone can be an artist, because art is like an ocean”.

    Art of walking
    Art of talking

    Art of writting
    Art of ridding

    Art of driving
    Art of diving

    Etc… Etc…

    So, the article above is exactly
    what the poet said…

    Thank you Dictionary.com

  9. kim -  February 7, 2013 - 10:26 am

    wow i thought it was literally art!

  10. kim -  February 7, 2013 - 10:25 am

    ok so i like love dictionary.com the only problem is that i doesnt have all the words i need but i love the hot word.

  11. Bubba -  February 7, 2013 - 7:13 am

    I find too many people using the word ‘art’ to describe many things that are ‘craft’. Journalism is craft. Literature is art.

  12. John -  February 6, 2013 - 8:09 pm


  13. ybbasnave -  February 6, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    Wow, i thought it was literally art!

  14. Jackson -  February 6, 2013 - 8:27 am

    Trivium and quadrivium, as it were.

  15. Bob D -  February 6, 2013 - 7:56 am

    Elizabeth Bishop = true genius.

  16. Chuck -  February 6, 2013 - 3:23 am

    Bachelor of Arts degrees are not earned, they are conferred upon the obtainer usually after they have completed prescribed sets of courses. After all, it’s a privilege, not a right.

  17. Sam -  February 5, 2013 - 11:59 pm

    AWESOME (positive connotation) :D

  18. DISHA -  February 5, 2013 - 2:11 pm


  19. jrilett -  February 5, 2013 - 12:20 pm

    There is a very interesting spot on the BBC site that allows you to listen & see written contemporary ‘English’ at various times throughout the last 800-1000 years.

  20. Sherls -  February 5, 2013 - 9:34 am

    I always wondered about that. Thanks!

  21. simpalsiag -  February 5, 2013 - 4:57 am



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