avant la lettre

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Borrowing from French avant la lettre ‎(before the letter)


avant la lettre

  1. (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.


  • IPA(key): /a.vɑ̃ la lɛtʁ/


avant la lettre m, f ‎(invariable)

  1. (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.
  2. (figuratively) Before the term was coined. Used when using a term anachronistically.
    C'était un écologiste avant la lettre.