04 March 2011

Turn of Phrase: State of the Art

For those of you who know me as a crafty chica these days, you might already know that my previous incarnation was as a writer. I used to write strange short stories all the time and read them aloud to my friends, usually when they were very stoned and receptive to the idea of some weird girl reading them about mad scientists, giant gerbils, alien mind games, and pony sex. I am certain there are people out in the universe who remember me solely based on the odd stories that they remember tidbits from... or, perhaps, for the excellent drugs I occasionally provided before said readings.

These days, I don't write very many stories or much of anything, really, save blog posts and product listings. The strongest drug you'll find in my system on any given day is caffeine. (Hmm... could the two be related?) But my current lack of word output doesn't mean I'm any less interested in words, which is why I'm starting a new blog feature called Turn of Phrase. Each Thursday, I will choose a common word or phrase and see if I can't find out its origins. This might not be as interesting as my short stories of old, but, who knows, maybe we'll learn something interesting along the way. Join me?

Today, I noticed the phrase "state of the art" on the cover of a book I'm reading (The Complete Thyroid Sourcebook... boring!). The phrase is generally not applied to anything having to do with art, or, perhaps I should say, is not applied exclusively to things having to do with the arts. So what's the deal? Where did the phrase "state of the art" originate?

Sadly, the phrase "state of the art" does not have a particularly interesting history. Especially when one realizes that the word "art" applies to much more than the artsy-crafty sort I'm so thoroughly immersed in these days. In fact, Dictionary.com lists an impressive 16 definitions for the word "art"!  I won't list them all here, but summarize to say that rather than art is more than paintings and drawings. Art can refer to any skill in human interactions (a master in the art of kissing, say), trickery, or, as likely used in the phrase "state of the art", art can refer to science and learning. (Think language arts.)

While "state of the art" might seem, at first, to refer to some previously undiscovered crafty wunderland, the word "state" in this case is not used as in "state of the union" but rather as referring to a condition or attribute: the condition of the art. Or, using what we learned in the previous paragraph, the meaning of the phrase "state of the art" is actually "the condition of the science." So if a computer is considered "state of the art", that means it is as advanced as it could be based on "the condition of the science" [i.e. available technology regarding computers] at the time it was made.

The first recorded use of "state of the art" was in 1910. According to wordorigins.org, "The earliest known usage is from 1910, in H.H. Suplee’s Gas TurbineIt has therefore been thought desirable to gather under one cover the most important papers...In the present state of the art this is all that can be done." Linguist Michael Quinion, of World Wide Words, suggests:
The suggestion in the Oxford English Dictionary is that the phrase started out in the late nineteenth century as status of the art, in other words, the current condition or level which some technical art had reached. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase had changed to its modern form with the same meaning of “the current stage of development of a practical or technological subject”. It may have changed its form by a simple mistake, or by the process that grammarians call folk etymology or popular etymology, by which words change to fit speaker’s misconceptions of their real meanings. By the 1960s the word had shifted sense slightly to the way we use it now, which implies the newest or best techniques in some product or activity.

So, there you have it: the origins of the phrase "state of the art." Join me next Friday as I research another phrase and share my results with you. Want to know where your favorite word or phrase came from? Leave me a comment and you might see your word/phrase in a future Turn of Phrase feature.


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