Romantics, Romances, and romances: Pop-Cultural Confusion

“It can’t be romantic! It’s too dark and scary!” Ah, the travails of art-history students* railing against the influence of popular culture. Or against the confusion of Romantic and romantic, at least.

The root of the word “romance” is Roman, just like the Romance Languages are all descended from Latin (Spanish, Italian, French, Romanch, Romanian, Portuguese). It then wandered into Old French and took on the sense of both the vernacular language, and of a work of literature in verse form, or a tale in verse form. From then it jumped to English as something written in French (the adventures of French knights and kings), and thus to a tale in verse form recounting the deeds of heroes and the like. When printing came along, fiction readers spread a wider net. By the late 1600s, “romance” as a type of work included adventure stories with love and kissing. By the early 1800s we get “romance novel” as a distinct type of novel centered on love and kissing.

Since the Romantic [cultural] Movement was all about emotion and passion and being true to one’s heart, you can see how it would borrow (or others would borrow) “romance” as a specific thing that once again included adventures dark and grim as well as warm and fuzzy.

I grew up with both meanings. I read the Romances of Charlemagne and His Paladins, and sampled a few romance novels. And studied a Romance language. I seem to write romances in the older sense, except that they are not in verse. Chesterton might be the last romance-in-verse writer in English, if you take The Ballad of the White Horse as a romance in the medieval sense.

Ah, English, once more muddling the heads of another generation of native speakers with your bad habit of mugging other languages for vocabulary and grammar!

*That was nothing compared to the, ah, vehement denials from some English students a few years back. “No way! ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is no way a Romantic short story. Eeeeewwwww.” Sister Grammatica and I smiled beatifically at each other in passing and pretended to be deaf.


19 thoughts on “Romantics, Romances, and romances: Pop-Cultural Confusion

  1. Ah, yes! Romantic music (with a capital R) draws on some very dark material indeed, as do the literature and paintings of the era.
    Mustn’t confuse Berlioz with intimate-candlelight-dinner music.

    • Been having Symphonie Fantastique play so I have some idea of what it is… might add a significant bonus to charm attempts, even if it’s not, er, Barry White.

      • And now as I review my music history… ‘was part of the composer’s grand attempt to woo one Harriet Smithson. And it worked! So, as small-r romantic music, it was a success, at least that one time.

        • :laughs: Oh, that’s awesome.

          I just snagged it because I had no associations for the fellow, and six different versions of the same song came up so I figured it is the most well known if not the best. 😀

          The future is *awesome*, incidentally.

  2. I love the way a word can have so many different connotations.
    My sister and I used to play a game where we would start with a word, for example : Moon
    one person would come up with a reference and the second would have to find a second in the same category.
    So: Moon
    Diane—Artemis (OK, now your turn…)
    Jolly face—bunny (Your turn!)
    Anorthosite—???(Better explain that one! If you can’t explain it, YOU lose!)

  3. I made my mom (wearing English teacher home schooler hat) so mad when I told her The Scarlet Pimpernel was a romance novel, just like the Harliquins a friend had given me and she’d confiscated as being evil. (At my reading speed I’d already read them several times before she looked through my dresser and found them.)
    She was sure The Scarlet Pimpernel was liturature. We never came to any agreement. I still say The Scarlet Pimpernel has the same plot structure as a Harliquin romance.

  4. Rather, Harlequins begin with the same structure, but moved too much of the derring-do and heroic feats to the background, and sometimes the text can get, er, outrageous.

    Scarlet Pimpernel – both movies and the stage show
    Gunga Din – the poem and the movie; added scenes and structure helped to build the romance.

  5. By happenstance, I’m reading “Fated Blades” by Ilona Andrews.

    It is openly a “romantic story” (in the action-adventure tradition) but is also a “romance story” as the two main characters are hereditary enemies who find themselves working together but are also finding themselves strongly attracted to each other. [Crazy Grin]

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