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Avant la lettre

Related: to coin (verb) - neologism - original - proto- - roots


Avant la lettre is an originally French term meaning before the letter: before a (specified) name existed.

Avant la lettre and après la lettre

The origins and boundaries of many art movements, cultural movements and genres are almost never clear. Little attention has been given to the etymological aspect of their definitions. Art movement periods can be split in two distinctly different periods:

The lifecycle of a genres and movements:

  1. a certain number of cultural products (films, music, books), share common characteristics
  2. critics notice similiarities and come up with a name (see neologism)
  3. the name is accepted by the audience and a genre or movementis born
  4. producers start to make products to fit the new genre classification
  5. parodies may arise
  6. Exception to these rules in case of a manifesto.


The term avant-garde in an art context was first attested in 1910 while the term modernism, again in an art context, in 1929. The term modern art, however, was first attested in 1849.

Etymological details need "a postiori" list of artists and techniques that belong to them. It means that chronologically, modern art came first, avant-garde second, and lastly, when these terms were well established, people began to celebrate the modern because of itself, hence the term modernism, a celebration of breaking with the past and constant neophilia.

To conclude, naming a term: assigning a name to it, and having it accepted by the audience, is a decisive moment in every movement or genre. Always think: is it avant la lettre or après la lettre.

see also: http://www.etymonline.com/

see also: genre - movement - etymology - neologism

see also: modern - modern art - avant garde - modernism

source: Douglas Harpers's Etymology Online Dictionary

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