What’s the origin of the word ‘aesthetic’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: aesthetic…

I’m exceedingly grateful that none of my three children ever took up smoking. My father smoked, obsessively, for more than 60 years and I always loathed the smell of burning tobacco. When I started working at a daily newspaper in the 1980s — an industry where smoking was rampant — I went home every day with my clothes stinking of smoke.

Lucky for me, my city instituted laws against smoking in the office and other public spaces in 1986. After most of a lifetime of battling second-hand smoke, I was suddenly free.

Today, however, the issue is vaping — a thumb-drive sized cartridge that delivers scent and nicotine to your body without some of the toxic chemicals created by burning cigarette. Nor does it smell as bad as cigarettes. The new ‘tastes’ are mint, mango and cucumber and other such benign sounding flavours.

I’m equally glad my kids haven’t gravitated to this new technology because the risks of vaping — although clearly not as significant as the dangers of smoking — are still unknown. But I read with interest a May 14/18 New Yorker article on the subject by Jia Tolentino under the headline “The promise of vaping and the rise of Juul.”

The article also gave me my word of the week, aesthetic. Here is how Tolentino used it:

If you’re over forty, your idea of smoking was likely shaped by Madison Avenue and Hollywood: the strong-jawed cowboy lighting a Marlboro, Lauren Bacall asking for a match. Juul has been defined by Instagram and Snapchat. The company’s official Instagram account, @juulvapor, is age-appropriate and fairly boring—it has an aesthetic reminiscent of Real Simple, and forty-four thousand followers.

Of course I already knew that the word aesthetic means “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.” But I was curious to learn its etymology. I’ve used the word thousands of times myself without ever understanding its origins.

The ‘ae’ at the beginning of the word made me certain it was Greek and I was right.  The word comes from aisthētikos, which in turn comes from aisthēta meaning ‘perceptible things,’ and from aisthesthai meaning ‘perceive.’

The sense ‘concerned with beauty’ was coined in German in the mid 18th century and adopted into English in the early 19th century, popularized by translations of the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 20/18.

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