words : antic

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The Independent Online
The Sun newspaper was indignant about poor Fergie. "Her antics," said its reporter, "have done more than any other member of the Royal Family to almost destroy its image." The Telegraph had the same word in much bigger type. "The Duke suffers with silent dignity the antics of his boisterous Duchess," it shouted in a 48-point headline across two pages. An antic was once a bit of grotesque carving or painting, perhaps of mythical plants or beasts, perhaps of bizarrely shaped human beings. Rather a cruel word.

Sometimes it was spelt antique as it might always have been if we had taken it straight from the Latin antiquus instead of the Italian antico. The idea was that such grotesques were primitive or of ancient origin. When Milton in Il Penseroso wrote of the "antique [which he spelt antick] pillars" of King's College chapel, he probably wasn't thinking about their age (they'd been up about 120 years) but about the quaint barbarity of Gothic architecture.

However, it's the Duchess's behaviour rather than her age or appearance that has excited the hacks. This is the "antic disposition" assumed by Hamlet when pretending to be off his head. The noun in that context meant a grotesque or ludicrous posture, also a clown. Today we have abandoned the adjective and we use the noun only in the plural, which doesn't make it kinder.

Meanwhile the Express had a "Palace insider" speaking of Sarah's "antics with other men". For anything beyond toe-sucking, I should have thought, the conventional word here is peccadilloes. This comes from the Italian for little sins, once often coupled with the word mere, but now more commonly used as a euphemism for big ones. I have not seen it used of the Duchess's amours. For some reason it seems to be reserved nowadays for politicians.

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