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The French loan phrase avant-garde,which translates literally to before guard, originally referred to the front part of an army.1 But today, in both English and French, the word relates to innovation, especially artistic. As a noun, it denotes an innovative group or movement within a given field. As an adjective, it describes any group, individual, or work of art with an innovative bent. It’s roughly synonymous with experimental and progressive.

Avant-garde is conventionally hyphenated as both a noun and an adjective (though a few publishers omit the hyphen when the phrase functions as a noun). It is well established in English, so there’s no need to italicize it in normal use.


In the 1980s and ’90s, an artist working on the weirdo fringe of the avant-garde became, almost unbelievably, a household name. [Washington Post]

Avant-garde artist Christo has won approval to suspend 6 miles of fabric over the Arkansas River. [Daily Mail]

“Oops” is a daring avant garde film that has been described as everything from “mumblecore” to “religious.” [Buzzfeed]

The zealous Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli brought the avant-garde to Zurich when he scraped the cathedral bare in the 16th century. [Sydney Morning Herald]

He goes further and says that without Ono opening up the avant garde for Lennon, songs such as Imagine would never have been written. [Guardian]


1. Avant-garde in the OED (subscription required)

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