Etymology of Art

The modern English word art (a noun, an adjective and a verb at the same time) has an interesting etymology; it comes from the the Latin artem, the Old English eart, the Middle English art, and the Old French art.

There is also a similarity with the Old Norse est.

Merriam-Webster describes art as a thing that is created through ability and imagination and is beautiful and transmits feelings and ideas. It’s also the work that is created by artists, painters, sculptors and other craftsmen.

The image below describes the history of this word quite nicely:

Etymology of Art

Art itself has existed since paleolithic times, with the Venus of Willendorf being the most prominent example, dating before 25,000 BCE. For as long as we humans have existed, we have been attracted to and fascinated by art forms. Thus, while the exact origins of this word are not known (there was likely a word in almost every culture that described art as we know it), we can attest to the timelessness of the word art.

The first known use of the word art comes from 13th century manuscripts. However, the word art and its many variants (artem, eart, etc) have most likely existed for a very long time, perhaps dating all the way back to the founding of Rome. Many words and sentences use the word art: state of the art (something that is at the highest level or on the leading edge; the very best), artistically (a task performed with skill and art; for example: artistically talented students).

Note that art is also a verb (a mostly obsolete present form of the singular be) and you need only read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets to see it in action. Thou art beautiful and thou art a villain and thou art and o brother where art thou are just some of the many sentences in Shakespeare’s work that use art as a verb. In the modern world, using art in this fashion is seen as theatrical.

The word art sounds similar in Hispanic languages and French. As you move farther away from western Europe, the word starts losing its Latin roots (keep in mind that the Romans did not subjugate much of Asia and Africa). In Portuguese, Spanish, Galician, Italian and Albanian you say arte, in Afrikaans you say kun, in Basque you write artea, in Bosnian and Croatian you say umjetnost, in English, Catalan and French you write art. In Czech: umění; in German, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Estonian: kunst; in Swedish: konst; in Esperanto: arto;  in Filipino: sining; in Finnish: taido; in Hungarian: művészet; in Indonesian: seni; in Polish: sztuka; in Romanian: artă; in turkish: sanat.


Agnes, Michael, ed. in chief, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, MacMillan, 1999.

Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Weekley, Ernest, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, John Murray, 1921; reprint 1967, Dover Publications.