Way, way back, when 17 was middle-aged.

Dear Word Detective: Is there a relationship between the words “art” and “artifice”? I’d always thought so, but when I referred to the American Heritage Dictionary, I found that a different root was listed for each word. How do words like “artful” and “artless” fit into all this? — JK.

Eh, well, you’re kinda using the wrong tool there, pal. See, whatcha got in your American Heritage — don’t get me wrong, it’s a bang-up book — is a synchronic dictionary. What you need is more of a diachronic approach. Your synchronic dictionary, the American Heritage, your Merriam-Webster, is mostly for folks who want to know what a word means, how to spell it, and so on. So a synchronic dictionary (from the Greek “syn,” meaning “same,” plus “chronos,” time) looks at a word mostly as it is used now, along with usually just a smidgen of its history. Your diachronic dictionary (“dia,” meaning “throughout,” plus our pal “chronos” again), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) being the biggie in the field, is a historical dictionary; it traces words back to the cave paintings (or as close as the gang at Oxford can get). For unscrewing the inscrutabilities of etymology, it’s like the difference between a nice pair of pliers and a really good socket set. A jaunt through the OED shows that all the words you mention do, ultimately, share a common origin.

In the beginning was the common noun “art,” which first appeared in English around 1300 with the meaning of “skill in doing something, especially as a result of practice or knowledge.” This sense reflected the Latin root of “art” (“ars, art-“), which meant “professional or practical skill, craftsmanship, ingenuity, etc.” This sense eventually developed into all the various “arts” we know today, from painting and music, etc., to the less useful “arts” of poker tactics and designing exotic financial derivatives.

“Artifice” first appeared in English in the early 16th century with the meaning “skill in making something,” or “ingenuity,” and didn’t develop its modern sense of “cunning, trickery, clever device” (almost always used in a negative sense now) until the 17th century. The roots of “artifice” were “ars” in the “skill” sense plus the Latin “facere,” meaning “to make.” The original “something made cleverly” sense of “artifice” persists in the adjective “artificial,” which, although often applied in a derogatory sense, can also simply mean “not existing naturally.”

“Artful” showed up in the late 16th century meaning, as you might expect, “displaying technical skill” (literally “full of art”) or simply “clever” (“So artful a Machine as every Man is,” 1718). By the early 17th century, however, “artful” was being used in a more figurative sense of “crafty, devious,” as in the Artful Dodger, the young pickpocket in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” As used today, “artful” can mean simply “showing art or skill,” but frequently carries at least a hint of deviousness (“The artful old man who hides his major offences behind a frank admission of peccadilloes,” 1955). So being “artful” can be either a good and a bad thing.

“Artless” mirrors the positive and negative senses of “artful.” When it first came into use in the late 16th century, it meant simply “lacking skill” or “uncultured, crude.” But by the early 18th century, “artless” had taken on a connotation opposite to the “sneaky” sense of “artful,” and meant “guileless, innocent, sincere” (“What was amazing was not the deranged lewdness of her performance, but the sweet, artless way she smiled at the end,” 2007). Paralleling “artful,” in modern usage “artless” can mean either “clumsy, crude, primitive” or “simple, honest and sincere.” It all comes down to the motive behind one’s “art”: to enrich the world or to pick its pocket.

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