Fantastic comes from the Latin fantasticus or phantasticus via Old French, which in turn is from the Greek φανταστικός (phantastikos). The Greek verb φαντάζειν (phantazein) means to make visible and φαντάζεσθαι (phantazesthai) means to imagine, to have visions. Words like fantasy, phantasm, and fancy come from the same root.
The adjective fantastic was brought to England by the Normans and has been used in English since the late fourteenth century, when it could mean either “something false or supernatural” or “something produced by the mental faculty of imagination.” Fourteenth-century physicians believed the brain to be divided into three parts or cells. The fore-brain controlled imagination, the middle-brain judgment, and the rear-brain memory. In his Knight’s Tale, lines 1:1372–76, written c. 1385, Chaucer alludes to this neurological understanding in a passage which is also one of the earliest recorded uses of fantastic in English:
And in his geere for al the world he ferde
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendred of humour malencolik
Biforen, his celle fantastik.
(And in his behavior for all the world he acted
Not only like the lover’s malady
Of heroes, but rather like mania,
Engendered of humor melancholic
In the fore-brain, his cell fantastic.)
By the end of the next century, fantastic had come to mean “imaginative, fanciful, or capricious,” and the older senses began fading away, although uses in these early senses can be found as late as the eighteenth century. And by the sixteenth century the word had also adopted the meaning of “extravagant or grotesque.”
But it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that fantastic came to be used in the modern sense of “excellent, really good.” English crime novelist Margery Allingham was among the first to use this new sense in her 1938 The Fashion in the Shrouds:
Oh, Val, isn’t it fantastic? […] It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Fantastic has come a long way, from hallucinations and medieval neurology to simply being something really neat.
(See also: trip the light fantastic)
“fantastic, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
“fantastik (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, 2013.
The Riverside Chaucer, third edition, Larry D. Benson, ed., Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1987, 44, 831–32.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton