I was at the Art Gallery of Ontario today, and I stopped one more time by the exhibition Faith and Fortune: Art Across the Global Spanish Empire. Along with the many artworks and historical insights, I especially took note of something I saw on several placards describing artworks:

“Artist once known.”

Think of how many times you’ve been in a gallery or a museum for an exhibition of artifacts from other times and places and seen a placard detailing a work by someone whose identity is not known. Do you remember what it said?


“Artist unknown.”

Or nothing at all, just the place and date.

We all know, but I’ll say it to make sure it’s acknowledged: Everything that has been made has been made by someone. 

And while things made in factories are made by people following the designs of other people and they generally have no expectation of recognition, every singular handmade work of art or craft has been made by someone who has done it in a way no one else would have done quite the same, and most of them were done by people who were certainly known at the time the artwork was completed, even if not for long after. And we can’t assume they didn’t care whether their name was remembered.

We often call works by unknown artists “anonymous.” This is so common in music from earlier times that the different composers known as Anonymous are numbered for identification (because we know all these pieces are by one person, and all these by another, but we don’t know their names). One prolific medieval composer even has an eponymous quartet: Anonymous 4. But those of us who work on bibliographies often make the distinction that Anonymous means that the person deliberately did not want their name to be known (like an anonymous donor to some art institution, say), whereas a person whose name is unknown just by happenstance is Unknown. (Or is just not named: depending on your house style, you may cite articles by unknown authors just by the title.)

The thing about unknown, though, is that it has a timeless air to it: the question is not raised of whether it had ever been known. The name is treated as if it had never been known. (To say nothing of giving only a title or description and not even a substitute for a name.) And, on a moment’s reflection, we know that that is not true. At least one person knew – and probably more than just one. It’s only unknown to us.

Which is why I really like “Artist once known.” It’s accurate, and it also reminds us of the person, and of the erasures and erosions in the river of history. Not only that, you could say it leaves the door of possible knowledge ajar: if once, why not future? Who is to say we might not find out, at some future time, the name and other details about the person who made it? It’s not very likely, but such things happen once in a while.

Now, once known is a perfectly suitable and clear term. There is no need for a classically derived term. But there is also no need for all sorts of fun things that nonetheless do no harm and that some of us still want. Museums are known to have a few. And I enjoy words (did I need to say this?). So… what word could we use in counterpoise to anonymous?

There isn’t an established word for ‘once known’ to match up with anonymous. So I decided to do a little messing around with the Lego kit of Classical Greek. Why Greek? Just because anonymous is from Classical Greek, from ᾰ̓νώνῠμος, meaning ‘no name’. So in place of ‘no’ we want… what?

I looked at a number of possibilities. I had uneasily settled on potonymous or poteonymous, using ποτέ, pote, meaning ‘once, at one time’. But there’s not so much likelihood of that being remembered, used, and for that matter pronounced suitably by English speakers. 

So I am suggesting proteronymous, from πρότερος ‘before, earlier’ plus the same -onymous root (from ὄνῠμᾰ, Aeolian and Doric version of Attic ὄνομᾰ). Easier to deal with for Anglophones. I acknowledge that ‘once, at one time’ is semantically slightly better than ‘before, earlier’, but usability is a thing, you know? And anyway, it’s only for people for whom once known isn’t quite fancy enough… and those of us who fancy another word just because.

And if it passes into general use and no one remembers that I was the one who first glued those two bits together… it’s OK. I don’t mind. It’s not an artwork I toiled many hours on. Unlike paper money, a word is only truly verbal currency when it has no one’s signature on it.

6 responses to “proteronymous

  1. Simpler and just as fancy with fewer letters: the Etruscan “phersu”. But also wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually ever being used.

    Simplest of all would be just to use lone question mark (which already connotes the unknown – but does not indicate the unknowable).

    You could also combine and internationalize the Etruscan and the question mark to fancy it up a bit for high-end art galleries:
    ¿phersu? – (and good luck with that).

    Thanks – I appreciate your erudition and splicing these disparate bits of extinct etymological DNA together – smithing new words is an art. Perhaps, one day, there’ll be an Universal Art Gallery of Words, and some of yours will be on display with little placards on them: “Artist – Proteronymous”

  2. This is cool. Never thought about it like that.

  3. Sorry, I don’t see the point of “artist once known” at all.

    I see nothing wrong with “unknown artist”.

    • “Artist once known” is barely longer (two more letters and one more space) and is more complete and accurate: it conveys not only that the artist is unknown to us but also that the artwork did not appear in the world with no known artist attached to it – the artist’s name was known but has been forgotten. Since there is nothing intrinsically superior to “unknown artist” – the fact that it has been used previously does not make it king of the hill – it’s not a matter of “artist once known” needing to justify itself; it’s clear and true, and well-considered, and people can use it if they want to.

      It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, in fact, that you would bother to post this as a comment. I don’t see the point of objecting to a richer and more thoughtful use of the language; why would anyone expend any effort defending inertia and limitation? Will you be posting a similar comment on every other blog post here where there is a rough synonym that you prefer to the word in question?

  4. The words “unknown artist/artist unknown” merely describe a reality: we don’t know who the artist was.

    I fail to see how that could possibly be taken as somehow “defending inertia and limitation”.

    • The words “artist once known” also describe a reality, and they describe it more completely: we don’t know who the artist was, but someone did previously. The phrasing “artist unknown” or “unknown artist” doesn’t convey they second part of that, and as such is less complete. Therefore, in cases where we are aware that the artist’s name was known at one time but has been lost, “artist once known” is the better term.

      If you insist on a more established but less informative term rather than a newer but more completely accurate phrasing, you defend inertia (the preference for the established over any improvement) and limitation (because the older term is less informative, and rejecting the option of the newer term limits the expressive ability of the language). Because sticking to established phrasings without a second thought is easier, failing to see such limitations is common, but it is not a virtue, and it can be overcome by those willing to engage thoughtfully.

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