Word of The Day for Wednesday, September 29, 2010


vir•tu  (vuhr-TOO)  / vr-t, vr- /   n

1. a knowledge or love of, or taste for, artistic objects
2. the quality of being artistic or beautiful, or rare
3. such art objects, collectively
4. productions of art especially of a curious or antique nature


Related Words: by virtue of the root vir: virago, virile, virilescence, viripotent, virtual, virtuoso


The Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano described these objects as "statues, pictures, tapestries, divans, chairs of ivory, cloth interwoven with gems, many-coloured boxes and coffers in the Arabian style, crystal vases and other things of this kind . . . [whose] sight . . . is pleasing and brings prestige to the owner of the house." They all spoke to the wealth, taste and virtu  of their owner.
-- John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination

Divans, Persian rugs, easy chairs, books, statuary, articles of virtu  and bric-a-brac are on every side, and the whole has the appearance of a place where one could dream his life away.
-- "Mark Twain's Summer Home", The New York Times , September 10, 1882


1722, from It. virtu "excellence," from L. virtutem (nom. virtus) "virtue" from vir "man". The same word as virtue, borrowed during a period when everything Italian was in vogue.

Sources: Dictionary.com, Online Etymology

Why This Word:

On the one hand, one can't really have too many words for fine art and beauty, even if it is essentially a souped-up Italian import that attached itself to high end knick-knacks and bric-a-brac.

One the other hand, its sexist pedigree, which literally makes virture synonymous with manly, is hard to ignore.

What we have then is a word fashioned from the cultural fashion of making male the standard of that is good, strong and, well, virtuous (vir being Latin for man) and the later fashion of peppering English with Italian words, even when English equivalents were already at hand. But even if such ideas are no longer, well, fashionable, I've never been one to hold that the original sins of a word's creation stain it indelibly when the present-day meaning has become so thoroughly untethered from its roots. Thus making virtue out of virtu.

Word-E: A Word-A-Day

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