The word fantastic has an interesting history; its primary meaning today has strayed from its original one quite a bit. Fantastic might describe something related to the genre of fantasy, or refer to the size, amount, or degree of something, or qualify something as being very good. While the first two connotations still appear in current language and literature, the last seems to be by far the most common. A word of Indo-European origin, it is similar to words in many European languages, which also boast multiple definitions. Born in the fourteenth century out of several languages, the word fantastic has transformed through the ages, and though it retains its initial definition at times, has come to indicate for the most part something entirely different in English.
Definitions in the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries point to the noun fantasy as a basis for the derivation of the adjective fantastic. To modern readers and listeners, fantasy probably conjures up the idea of either a daydream or of a literary genre filled with magical characters, and this is pretty consistent with original uses. More recent entries, from the twentieth century, cite both of those definitions, and older ones (from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) are related: they mention “whimsical” concepts and “imaginary perceptions,” as well as a “spectral apparition” (OED, 2, 3a, 5a). According to the OED, the etymological origins of fantasy come from the Old French fantasie, Latin phantasia, and Greek ϕαντασία (“a making visible”). These original meanings carried from the Greek into Old French, and then eventually into Middle English. Fancy is also mentioned, as a shortened version of fantasy that also made its way into Middle English, with a similar but slightly different meaning. While fantastic is partially derived from fantasy, it also has its own roots in Indo-European languages.
Fantastic first appeared in the English language while Middle English was in use, and comes from Latin, Greek, and French. Its etymology, as given by the OED, comes from the medieval Latin fantasticus (phantasticus in Late Latin) and the Greek ϕανταστικός and ϕαντάζειν (“to make visible” and later, “to imagine, have visions”). The Middle English Dictionary also refers to the Old French fantastique. Both sources point to fantasy as an earlier word of related meaning that led to the use of fantastic. Both words seem to have originated in the fourteenth century, with the first example of fantastic cited by the OED in the latter part of the 1300’s while some uses of fantasy were earlier in the century. From this information, it is likely that fantasy entered into English, and possibly also Latin, French, and Greek, slightly earlier than fantastic, after which point each word evolved simultaneously. It is interesting that fantastic seems to have derived both as an adjective form of the Middle English noun fantasy, and from words in other languages that were derived from their own respective words meaning fantasy. Perhaps different authors came up with the word for different reasons, or perhaps it was simply noted that the new form was similar.
The early Greek definitions of each word relate to vision, in the sense of creating something that can be seen, or of imagining seeing something. It is not very difficult to see how this sense developed into the Middle English uses, which for the most part were associated with imagination. There were many different early definitions, but some notable ones from the OED follow: firstly, it could mean “existing only in imagination; proceeding merely from imagination; fabulous, imaginary, unreal” (OED A1a). This definition is listed as obsolete, and while this is not generally how it would be used today, many people would still understand this meaning, as relating to the genre of fantasy. Fantastic could also describe a person, either as “having a lively imagination” (also obsolete), or as “fanciful, impulsive, capricious, arbitrary; also, foppish in attire” (OED, A4a, A4b). Early on, though this usage too is obsolete, fantastic could also serve as a noun: it could be “a fanciful composition” (OED B3). People from the fourteenth century through sometimes in the twentieth century mainly associated the word with grandiose, magical, and imaginary things. Another less common and most likely later use is shown in the entry from Merriam-Webster; fantastic can mean “extremely high or great”. This definition is not common today either, but is still recognizable to some. None of these definitions are popular or even necessarily understood today, but this was how fantastic started out and progressed in the English Language.
As for current usage, fantastic has one main definition and is used much more casually than it was in the past. The OED gives the modern definition as “excellent, good beyond expectation,” and marks it as colloquial (OED, A7). This is in contrast to the former, more formal uses of the word, which have now mostly phased out of current language. Today, instead of appearing in literature and denoting one of several fairly strict meanings, it is employed frequently, but mostly only in casual conversation, and has one basic, widely-understood meaning. People may choose the word fantastic to describe an enjoyable and well-done movie, a friend’s dressed-up appearance, an exciting experience, or anything else they deem “excellent” or worthy of a “superlative” (Merriam-Webster). While the related fantasy has for the most part retained some of its original meanings, fantastic has diverged for whatever reason. In Julia Caldwell’s Oxford Dictionary of English Word Origins, the entry on fantastic states that “the modern use of fantastic to mean ‘wonderful, excellent’ dates from the 1930s”. The earliest entry for this meaning of fantastic in the Corpus of Historical American English seems to be from a 1930 issue of Harpers Magazine: author Walter Gilkyson writes “The policeman had gone to get him a taxi. It was fantastic!”. It is worth noting that while the OED calls the current use of fantastic as “trivial” and colloquial, it was being used in magazine articles and other material as early as 1930. For whatever reason, around this time the meaning behind fantastic started to change. Instead of magic and imagination, the term began suggesting that something was very good.
Just as the meaning of fantastic has changed over time, so has the spelling. Because Middle English lacked much standardization of spelling, there are many variations that spanned time, and likely different regions. Older spellings of the word include fantastik, fantastike, fantastyke, fantastique, fantastyque, fantastick(e), phantastick(e), phantastike, phantastique, and phantastic (OED). Based on example sentences from the OED, the modern spelling seems to have been in use pretty consistently by the mid-nineteenth century, although earlier examples do exist, and alternative spellings persist until the late nineteenth century. No archaic spellings appear in the twentieth century or beyond. We’ve lost the -ph beginning, the -k, the -qu, and the -e ending that occurred in some variations. As for pronunciation, today fantastic is pronounced /fænˈtæstɪk/. There is little information about how former spellings may have been pronounced, but based on what existed of spelling and pronunciation conventions of Middle English, it is probable that the a’s had a longer pronunciation than in modern times, perhaps as /a/ or /ɔ/, and the i or y was probably pronounced /i/; similar to the modern French pronunciation of fantastique.
Fantastic, because it has Indo-European roots in Greek, Latin, and Old French, has many cognates in other languages. Take for example the aforementioned fantastique in French, as well as fantástico in Spanish, fantastich in Dutch, and fantastický in Czech. The original Latin and Greek spread the word into several European languages in addition to English. Interestingly, the modern definitions of these translations of fantastic seem to include both the meaning analogous to the original English definition of imagined or grand, and the modern English definition of excellent. Unlike in English, the definition derived from and related to fantasy continues into current use, and yet there are also plenty of casual uses meaning very good. It is surprising that this second definition applies also to cognates since it is so different from the original meaning. It seems possible that the second, more modern definition, exists also in other languages because of the influence of the English language.
The change throughout history of the word fantastic illustrates the fluidity of the English language. Beginning with ϕαντασία in Greek and phantasia in Latin, fantasy took root in Middle English by way of Old French, and was followed by fantastic, as derived from ϕανταστικός, fantasticus, and fantastique. For the first few centuries of its life, it put forth many meanings, though mostly serving as an adjective to describe imaginary or magical things, but sometimes acting as a noun of related meaning. It had very similar friends in other languages. It went through many different spellings and pronunciation changes, reflecting larger-scale transformations in English pronunciation conventions and the standardization of written English. Over time, it came to convey excellence instead, and though its use in formal writing lessened, it now makes frequent appearances in casual conversation.
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