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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(late 1990’s | journalese | “handcrafted,” “small-scale,” “designer”)

In terms of straight denotation, this word means pretty much what it always has, not that it’s been around very long. The OED dates “artisan” to the sixteenth century, but the first citation of “artisanal” comes from 1939. (The first citation for “artisanal” as we use it today doesn’t appear until 1983.) The main change lies not in the meaning so much as what the term is applied to. The older meaning (again quoting the OED): “Of, relating to, or characteristic of an artisan or skilled craftsperson; involving or utilizing traditional, small-scale, or non-mechanized methods or techniques.” Essentially the adjective form of “artisan.” The key difference now is that it applies mostly to products. Actually, that’s very nineties; now the word may apply to the place where the product is made (artisanal bakery vs. artisanal bread) or even raw material, such as artisanal wheat. By and large, though, we expect to see the word modifying a variety of food or drink that requires some processing and preparation. That was not particularly true in 1980. To illustrate the shift, we turn to the trusty New York Times. An article on handmade chocolates (December 17, 1980) did not refer to “artisanal chocolate” but a “painstaking, artisanal tradition.” By 2000 “artisanal” was commonly applied to chocolate, cheese, bread, and wine. Here’s a partial list of what LexisNexis fished up between December 1, 2013 and February 1, 2014: pizza, toast, jeans, ice cream, jewelry, bacon, popsicles, doughnuts, porridge, pasta chips, cigars. (Artisanal toast comes with “smallbatch” almond butter. How common will that word be in ten years?) The Economist headed an ecstatic article about Etsy “Artisanal capitalism.”

Naturally, now that the word has become risibly common and artisanalism has become “our national consumer religion,” as Details magazine put it in 2010, a backlash has begun. Writers regularly bewail the fact that its meaning has stretched beyond any reasonable bound — citing ad campaigns for Dunkin’ Donuts, Tostitos, or Progresso — or that it is grossly overused. Come to think of it, those two phenomena go together. A word formerly used only by the starry-eyed has become an easier and easier target of scorn. But the carpers are not going to get their way. Like it or not, “artisanal” has carved out its own niche, in the same wall as “organic,” “sustainable,” or “fair-trade.” Its surge of popularity coincides with the mania for the pursuit of exotic, unheralded, or ethically gratifying food sources, partly as a matter of responsibility to one’s fellow human beings and partly as a matter of proving that one is better than everyone else.

“Artisanal” has always promised small-scale production of handmade or partly handmade items, distinctive (even exquisite) and exclusive. It has always been the opposite of “industrial” or “mass-produced,” even in a term like “artisanal mining,” which has nothing to do with technique, only with the scale of the operation. As the term has developed since 1980, two things have happened. One is the shift, noted above, toward using “artisanal” to modify comestibles. The association is not exclusive, but it remains strong, even as current trends suggest that the term will glom onto more and more different kinds of nouns as time goes on. The other change has more to do with politics and society: the yoking of artisanal production with various left-wing watchwords born, or promoted, as a reaction to industrial farming and food preparation. The shift has changed the connotation of the word to some extent by mitigating the taint of luxury and elitism. Consuming artisanal products now is no longer decadent but virtuous, a way to help save the planet. (There is a fly built into this ointment: When too many consumers revel in the self-satisfaction wrought by the same artisanal product, it cannot remain artisanal.) As our economy evolved through mercantilism and industrialism, two complementary trends emerged and fed off each other like yin and yang: first you turn luxuries into necessities (sugar, coffee, tobacco, television sets), then once everyone can afford them, you turn them back into luxuries. Artisanal — that is, unique and expensive — goods help keep that cycle going by attracting both wealthy left-wingers, who used to disapprove of luxury, and wealthy right-wingers, happy to have more ways to flaunt their money. (I owe most of the foregoing analysis, as well as the nomination of “artisanal” itself, to lovely Liz from Queens.)

The artisan is a craftsman, of course. Nowadays we think of “art” as creativity and inspiration and craftsmanship as the technical skill to carry it out. “Art” hasn’t always been used that way — anybody take industrial arts in high school? — as its survival in words like “artisan” reminds us.

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