Thursday, January 5, 2023

“Antic grace”

Wednesday’s Wordle was ANTIC. It’s odd to see the word in its singular form, isn’t it? One thinks of antics, suggesting, like hijinks (which has no singular form), a neverending parade of silliness. But antic is also an adjective. I thought of the phrase “antic grace.”

And then I wondered where I know that phrase from. From Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Heron,” I think:

He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
But did Roethke borrow the phrase? Maybe from Shakespeare? No, though Hamlet does announce his intention “To put an antic disposition on.”

Google’s Ngram Viewer shows “antic grace” first appearing in print in 1851 (where?), but there at least two earlier (and accurate) dates. From 1680, “An Answer to the Satire on the Court Ladies,” by an anonymous poet:
His scragged carcass moves with antic grace.
And from 1813, Six Engravings by H. Thielcke. After the Designs of Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth, “with illustrations in verse.” The phrase appears in the poem “Pleasures of Childhood”:
         And many a playful, antic grace
Awakes the endearing smile upon the Mother’s face.
The poet is unidentified. Was it Henry D. Thielcke (b. 1788) himself? These lines appear nowhere else in Google Books, which makes me think that “Pleasures of Childhood” was not a widely anthologized sentimental poem.

Fast-forward to the early twentieth century, and “antic grace” is suddenly everywhere:
1905: “He preserves us from antic grace.”

1911: “The antic grace and delicious poetry.”

1916: “Such antic grace is in the day.”

1920: “One with thine antic grace.”

1924: “A little, bobbing, staccato motion of antic grace.”
We might say that by the time Roethke was writing, “antic grace” was in the air. Whatever happened between 1813 and 1905 will remain a mystery, at least for me. Google Books turns up nothing. The Corpus of Historical American English (1820–2019) and the Hansard Corpus (1803–2005), both available from, turn up nothing.

I am marking this rabbit hole For Rabbits Only.

[The OED on antic: “Probably originally a variant of ANTIQUE adj. and ANTIQUE n.” The earliest meaning: “a grotesque or fantastic ornamental representation of a person, animal, or thing; spec. a sculpted human figure represented in an unnatural posture and serving as a column; (also) a structure or tableau decorated with such representations. Also formerly as a mass noun: †decorative painting or sculpture consisting of the interweaving of human and animal forms with flowers and foliage (obsolete). Now rare.”

On antics: “grotesque, absurd, or amusing gestures or actions; silly, foolish, or outrageous behaviour.”

On the adjective antic: “esp. of a person, or a person's attributes or actions: grotesquely amusing or playful; absurd, fantastical”; “ff a person's clothing or attire: grotesque, absurd; fantastically incongruous”; “of the face or features: grotesquely distorted like a gargoyle; grinning or grimacing grotesquely.”

Though the noun hijinks has no singular form, the Oxford English Dictionary has the singular jink: “the act of eluding; a quick turn so as to elude a pursuer or escape from a guard”; “a ‘turn’ or ‘point’ in an argument.” And the dictionary has high-jink as an attributive: “high-jink enjoyments.”]

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