Word of the Day: antique

Word of the Day: antique

Napoleon snorted that the British were a “nation of shopkeepers,” a comment in the venerable tradition of Frenchmen turning up le nez at the smell of the bluff beefeaters.  That’s why, in the wooing scene that concludes Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young English soldier-king pays court to the French princess Katherine by confessing outright that he’s just a plain man, that is to say, a plain man, and none of your finicky supercilious eyebrow-tweezing courtiers a la Francaise.  John Hal Wayne gets the girl, as he always does.
Speakers of English, for their part, have returned the favor, associating French with sophistication, sometimes snooty and superficial, sometimes not.  Hence we have mansions de luxe, then mansions deluxe, then deluxe houses, and finally dee-lux stationwagons at Dealer Dan’s Used Car Lot.  Our word today, antique, follows the same track.  An antique is not only old.  It is old and precious, like a Stradivarius violin, like a Shaker table, like a Lou Gehrig baseball card, like a Superman comic book from 1956, like a menu from a defunct railroad-car diner.  It is why some ramshackle outfits filled not with Stradivarii but with diner menus and comic books and dented Chinese checkerboards sell not junk but junque – the mere spelling of the word, in a jocular self-deprecating way, suggesting the high class of the French.
Yet our word antique is like a pretty good reproduction of a genuine antique.  It entered the English language a long time ago, long before people collected old furniture made of wood instead of sawdust and glue.  It meant not old, but old-fashioned, or senile, crazy.  So Hamlet puts on an antic disposition to fool the King into thinking that he is mad.  Yes, that is the same word: antic means crazy, like an addled old man, or quaint and foolish, as if somebody at a bus stop were to walk up to you in doublet and hose and ask, “My good man, when is the chariot due to arrive?”  It’s the source of our word antics, now used to mean crazy or unpleasant or antisocial behavior, sometimes with comical overtones.

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