Challenging Word of the Week: atticism

(AT ih siz um) noun

Atticism (often with a lowercase a) is concise, superior, polished discourse and diction. The adjective attic describes elegant, subtle, incisive expression and articulation, with a strong admixture of subtle wit. The English poet John Milton (1608 – 1674) wrote:

What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice, of Attic taste…

Attica was the name of a region in the southeasterly part of ancient Greece. It was under the rule and influence of Athens, whose culture reached its height around the middle of the fifth century B.C. — the age of Pericles, the great poets, dramatists, sculptors and architects. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79) wrote of “sal atticum” (Attic wit — literally, Attic salt; sal (salt) was used figuratively by the Romans to mean “wit”). Attic wit is dry, delicate, subtle wit. The Romans had a verb atticisare (“atticise”) to describe the imitation of Athenian diction and expression. Atticism, then, is the art of the elegant, well-timed expression, refined simplicity laced with sophistication and wit. In more modern times, the distinction between these two styles has been described in a learned article by Bryan A. Garne in Volume X, No. 3 of Verbatim, the Language Quarterly, which includes this passage:

English inherited two strains of literary exression, both deriving ultimately from Ciceronian Latin. One the one hand is the plain style now in vogue, characterized by unadorned vocabulary, directness, unelaborate syntax, and earthiness. (This syle is known to scholars as Atticism). On the other hand we have the grand style, which exemplifies floridity, allusivenss, formal sometimes abstruse diction, and rhetorical ornament. Proponents of this verbally richer style (called Asiaticism) proudly claim that the nuances available in the “oriental profusion” of English synonyms make the language an ideal putty for the skilled linguistic craftsman to mold and shape precisely in accordance with his conceptions.

Well may you ask, what has this to do with the attic of a house, the room or story just under thre roof? Here is the answer: In the residences of the rich in old Attica, there was often a small row of columns or pilasters placed on the roof, as a decorative feature. Neo-Grecian architecture became fashionable in England in the 17th century. In error, the top floor of a building fashioned in the Attic style was called the “Attic storey” (story meaning, “floor of a house,” has an e before the y in British English). Error, because the Attic feature was a facade, whereas the English imitation was an eclosed floor. In time, the upper case A became a small a, the “storey” was dropped, and we wond up with, simply, attic.

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House.

My example: There’s no better place in the MOB to find atticism practiced than at The Attic which regularly features superior, polished discourse in its more direct and concise form as demonstrated by drjonz or by the more florid and rhetorically ornamental Joey.

I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it.

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