Borrowed from French avant la lettre (“before the letter”).
avant la lettre
- (idiomatic) Before the term was coined; used after a term applied anachronistically.
- Suffragettes were feminists avant la lettre. — Suffragettes were feminists before the word "feminist" existed.
2010, Stefano Evangelista, The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe, page 65:
- One might even advance the case for Wilde's being a celebrity avant la lettre, famous partly for being famous
1998, Dominik Declercq, Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China, page 341:
- as St Francis of Assisi was recently discovered to be an ecologist avant la lettre
2007, Joan DeJean, The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour, page 107:
- a work with a title that is a marketing dream, pure Julia Child well avant la lettre: Le Cuisinier français, The French Chef.
From avant (before) and lettre, a caption added to an engraving to describe the drawing.
avant la lettre (invariable)
- (engraving) Before lettering, before letters. "Épreuve, gravure avant la lettre": a print made before the caption is added (proof engraving, proof before letters)
- Cette estampe a fait l'objet de cinq tirages avant la lettre.
- (figuratively) Before the term was coined. Used when using a term anachronistically.
- C'était un écologiste avant la lettre.