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Why Do We Say 'Adventure'?

Christopher Golden, author of "The Pandora Room," explores the complicated etymology of the word "adventure," deciphering the term's use throughout time.

I’m sometimes fascinated to discover common words whose origins are not precisely what I had assumed. One of them, in particular, always puts me in mind of a favorite quotation from "The Princess Bride": “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word “adventure” is used so broadly that it is often taken for granted. Colloquially, many associate it with an exciting journey, but when contemplating its etymology, the natural instinct suggests its closest cousin might be “advent,” from the Latin "adventus" (1125-1175). Yet, while the words are certainly related, they are more like distant cousins than siblings. While it is true that “adventure” was born later, it is derived from the Latin "advenīre." Following the roots deeper, the words share etymological DNA, as "advenīre" means “to arrive.” But by instead moving forward with them, following the branches instead of the roots, we find further separation.

Adventure' is not the beginning of the journey, but the perilous travels themselves.

The use of “advent” to describe the four week season leading up to Christmas on the Christian calendar goes back to the 12th century, but its usage to refer to an onset or arrival, such as “the advent of the industrial age,” did not enter the language until the mid-18th century.

The word “aventure,” without the “d,” entered the lexicon around 1200 CE, borrowed from Old French and used to refer to something that happened by chance or luck. An understanding of adventure as something rife with risk and danger developed about a century later, and by 1400 CE, the common understanding of "aventure" as a “perilous undertaking” had taken hold. Later in the 15th century, the “d” was restored to the word, settling into our modern spelling.

Following this evolution, it seems clear that “adventure” was neither inspired by the 12th century religious usage of “advent” or to have in turn inspired the 18th century onset of “advent.” Thus, “adventure” is not the beginning of the journey, but the perilous travels themselves. I confess I once assumed otherwise. This leads me to an element of the word’s origins that many recountings of its etymology manage to leave out, which is remarkable, given its pertinence.

In the 13th century, “adventure” could be taken to mean a miracle, or an account of “marvelous thing.” By the mid-16th century, the word could also be construed to refer to a “remarkable occurrence in one’s life.” Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that “adventure” became a label attached to a particular genre of fiction from the earliest days of popular literature. Tales of heroic adventure date back to the advent of the written word (see what I did there?), not only to Greek myth but to the earliest known fictional story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which first appeared around 2100 BCE.

Gilgamesh begat a million heroes and heroines and infinite adventures, particularly in the Golden Age of the adventure novel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which featured tales by such legendary authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexander Dumas, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, and Jack London, who emphasized the theme with the title of his 1911 novel "Adventure."

That, of course, is only the beginning of the adventure of “adventure.”

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