A Certain Vintage

Are you into vintage clothes, or perhaps accessories? Maybe, if you can afford it, you have a vintage-car collection. The meaning of the word vintage is fairly straightforward. It basically means old, or oldfashioned, but also stylish and of good quality. It’s also an interesting, and straightforward, word in an etymological sense.

In fact, before I go any further, take a moment to think about where the word comes from. What other words do you think it’s related to? If you’re not sure and want a little help, take out the T but leave a space there, and you basically have the answer.

Yes, the word vintage is related to wine, perhaps unsurprisingly for you, because of course we still refer to the year of a wine’s production as its vintage.

It all begins, as is so often the case with Latin, and the word for wine, vinum (vin in French, vino in Italian and Spanish, vinho in Portuguese). As you can see, we’re a little bit different in English by using a W rather than a V, which is due to the language’s Germanic origin. W was a fairly common feature of Germanic languages, and V and W weren’t always so distinct as they are now anyway, so it’s not so odd that we use a W. From vinum we eventually ended up with the 14th-century French word vintage, meaning vine harvest. Note that the -age in vintage actually has nothing to do with the word age, but is rather simply a common noun ending in French.

The word only came to mean the age or year of production of a particular wine in the 18th century. Perhaps it took so long because a wine’s vintage doesn’t really affect its quality at all. The more general meaning of of a particular period didn’t start to appear until near the end of the 19th century. What’s interesting to me though is that it came to have this more general meaning at all. There are similar words like retro or antique, but none of them have the connotation of quality that vintage does. And I think that’s because we also associate wine with quality and sophistication. For a long time, in countries where wine isn’t normally produced, wine had such associations. If you drank wine, you were possibly a bit posh or sophisticated, or at least trying to look like you were. This was probably simply because it was more expensive due to being imported, came from nice warm countries, and was simply less common than beer or other alcoholic drinks. That also might explain why so many words for wine in many different languages all come from the revered Latin. Wine seemed special and was therefore deserving of association with the language of Ancient Rome, and power and religion.

Therefore when buying an old-style dress or classic car, the word vintage gives them a similar positive, sophisticated sense, much more so than something as simple as old. So while the current general trend to describe almost everything old as vintage might seem a little pretentious, I think there’s a fairly understandable psychology behind it, and if you don’t like the word, then you can only blame medieval French wine producers for its popularity!

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