Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, a caller said she was laughed at as a child for using “ept’” as the opposite of “inept.” Pat replied that “ept” was actually a word—a humorous invention. I don’t see “ept” in my dictionary, nor “ane,” nor “ert.”
A: No, you won’t find “ept” in standard dictionaries, but the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for the adjective, with written examples dating back to the 1930s. The OED even includes the adverb “eptly” and the noun “eptitude.”
Oxford credits the New Yorker writer E. B. White with the first recorded use of “ept.” In a letter dated October 1938, he said, “I am much obliged … to you for your warm, courteous, and ept treatment of a rather weak, skinny subject.”
The dictionary says “ept” means adroit, appropriate, or effective. It describes the word as a back-formation and “deliberate antonym” of “inept.” A back-formation is a word formed by dropping part of an earlier word.
Although the OED doesn’t have entries for “ane” or “ert,” it does include them (as humorous antonyms for “inane” and “inert”) in its entry for “ept.”
Here’s the citation, from the Sept. 7, 1966, issue of Time magazine: “With the exception of one or two semantic twisters, I think it is a first-rate job—definitely ept, ane and ert.”
By the way, many listeners wrote Pat after her appearance on the WNYC show to point out that “inept” had a more conventional antonym: “adept.”
But interestingly, these two words weren’t always opposites. In fact, “adept” didn’t even exist when “inept” showed up in the first decade of the 1600s. And when it did appear, “adept” had an entirely different meaning from its usual one today.
When “inept” first showed up, according to the OED, it had several meanings: not adapted; unsuited, or unfit; without aptitude; absurd; wanting in reason or judgment; silly or foolish.
It can be traced to the Latin ineptus, which the OED defines as “unsuited, absurd, foolish.” The Latin word is composed of the negative prefix in- plus the noun aptus, meaning a general tendency.
The Latin aptus is the source of our adjective “apt,” which came into English in the 14th century meaning suited or fit. Only later did “apt” come to mean inclined or disposed, as in “Children are apt to fidget.”
We don’t want to get lost in a labyrinth of classical etymology, but we should note here that aptus is the past participle of the verb apere (to fasten, attach, or bind). We’ll get back to apere in a moment.
As for “adept,” it’s derived from the Latin adeptus, composed of the prefix ad– plus apisci (to get), which is derived in turn from the verb that’s at the root of “inept”—apere, to fasten. Bingo: a classical connection between “adept” and “inept.”
When the adjective “adept” came into English in the mid-17th century, the OED says, it described someone or something “that has attained knowledge of the secrets of alchemy, magic, and the occult.”
The word often appeared in the phrase “adept philosopher,” meaning one skilled in alchemy, magic, or the occult.
It was first recorded in Thomas Vaughan’s Magia Adamica (1650), a book on magic: “I knew a Gentleman, who meeting with a Philosopher Adept, and receiving so much Courtesie as to be admitted to Discourse, attended his first Instructions passing well.”
The adjective led to a noun usage; originally an “adept” was a person with skills in those occult arts.
By the end of the 17th century, the adjective “adept” had taken on the more general sense it has now: very skilled at something. And the noun “adept” followed suit, coming to mean a skilled person.
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