Romantic - The History of a Word

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The use of romantic in English goes back to the seventeenth century when it was used to describe imagination and inventiveness in storytelling and also to characterize scenery and paintings. The word romantic, obviously, comes from the word romance. A romance originally was a type of story that was written in a romance language. That is, the languages that developed as offspring of Latin in areas that had once been Roman provinces. From these languages came French, Spanish, and Italian, among other romance languages.

Since these stories were largely written about love and adventure, the word romantic became associated with them over the years. Furthermore, since these stories were usually set in a scenic area, the phrase 'romantic spot' became associated with beautiful settings as opposed to those that were ugly or common. In modern French the word for novel is still roman, while in English a romance is a type of novel.

The word suggests love, adventure, scenic beauty, improbability, or make-believe. However, something described as romantic does not necessarily posses all of these characteristics. Scenic beauty is not improbable, and adventure is not necessarily make-believe. Another ingredient of the romances of medieval times is the all too familiar fairy-tale element.

Romantic in our current culture could be described as the opposite of logical. Romantic possessing a whimsical, creative, and imaginative approach taken by that of a dreamer. While logic being a more rational, calculating, and realistic world view.

The Romantic Era

friedrich_wanderer Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
photo credit: Boston College

The word romantic is used to describe entire periods of history. In the last years of the eighteenth century in England and Germany, Romanticist designated those who were dissatisfied with the existing culture and who were enthusiastic about new forms in art and thought. But the Romantic movement in art and culture is more than a rare and isolated event in one country or another. It is a phenomenon of Western Civilization. It occurs within historic dates and possesses certain characteristics. Most historians place the most recent romanic movement between the years 1780 and 1905, with a brief resurgence in the 1960's.

Some of the most famous historical contributors to the romantic movement are Goethe, Victor Hugo, Wagner, and Voltaire. With Goethe's Faust and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables being some of the greatest achievements of the era. The most recent romantic movement had its heyday from 1780 to 1850. Then during the years from 1850 to 1905, it branched out into realism, symbolism (impressionism), and naturalism.

Romantic culture generally expresses and exalts mankind's energetic, creative, and expansive tendencies by recognizing that although he is a feeble creature lost in the universe, he has unpredictable powers that develop under stress of desire and risk. It implies that intellect is not enough. Intelligence and reasoning are indeed valuable, but cannot achieve alone what passion in the mind and heart can.

Possessing a wealth of talents and inventiveness, Romanticism is a phenomenon quite similar to the Renaissance.


How will this word change in the future? What evolutions might it undergo as our culture progresses?


Originally published

Sources:
  Classic, Romantic, and Modern by
  From Dawn to Decadence by
  Society for Pure English by
  Annales de la Societe Jean-Jacques Rousseau by




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Romantic – The History of a Word

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