Printable Version
Pronunciation: ahrt-lis Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Devoid of any guile or deceit, ingenuous, sincere. 2. Natural, unpretentious, without artifice, (naively) simple. 3. Unskilled, clumsy, ignorant, inartistic.

Notes: This is the kind of word I like to call a "curve word"; it throws us a curve. Like a curve ball, it isn't what it seems. It should mean "without art", but due to its history, that isn't what it means today. Today it is the antonym of artful "cunning, tricky". It comes with an ordinary adverb, artlessly, and a regular noun, artlessness,

In Play: An artful lie is more dangerous than an artless one, because fewer people can see through it. However, other things besides a lie may be artless: "Amanda Lynn's performance last night was an artless jumble of folk, jazz, and popular tunes." Today's word can refer to something simple or simple-minded: "Julie made an artless attempt to convince her husband not to drink too much, but all for naught."

Word History: Art goes back to a PIE word ar- "fit together, join". It kept that meaning in Sanskrit rtih "manner, mode", Greek artizein "to prepare", Latin artus "joint" and English arm, a limb with lots of joints. It picked up the sense of "art" as we know it today, from Latin ars, artis "art", which English borrowed from French, a descendant of Latin. Apparently the Romans perceived art as something fittingly joined. In English art picked up the meaning of "cunning, trickery" in the 17th century. We see it in this sense in the "artful dodger" of Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, so this sense was alive and well in the 19th century. However, with the rise of artifice, the word lost this sense, leaving it only in artless and artful. (Today's Good Word was suggested by an "artless artist" in Greensboro, North Carolina.)

Dr. Goodword,

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