What does classic mean?

Classic is a common English word with several meanings. It may refer to ancient literature, works of excellence, and reliable sources. The term can also describe objects or events that are typical, traditional, noteworthy, or historically significant.

classic car porsche targa

Classic cars in good condition, such as this Porsche 911 Targa, attract many collectors.
Image: Emslichter on pixabay.

EF Education First list classic among the 3,000 most common words in English.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term serves as a noun and an adjective. The noun form, can refer to:

  • Ancient Greek or Roman literature; e.g., To study classics at university you will likely need a qualification in Greek or Latin.
  • Written work whose excellence stands the test of time; e.g., The One Minute Manager is a classic on management skills.
  • An authoritative source or work; e.g., Erskine May’s guide is a classic on parliamentary law and procedure.
  • A perfect or typical example; e.g., In recalling the goal that Maradona scored for Argentina against England in the quarter final of the 1986 World Cup, the fan declared it to be a classic.
  • Objects of historical significance; e.g., Commodore Amiga computers were classics that “always seemed ahead of their time.”

There are related meanings in the adjective form. In addition, the term applies to things that are traditional, typical, historically memorable, or significant. For example:

  • Homer’s Odyssey is a classic Greek text.
  • The professor presented a classic case study on strategy and organization.
  • This classic guide to stocks and shares is an investor’s bible.
  • “A fool and his money are soon parted,” is a classic saying.
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo is a classic film.
  • Valued at more than $24 billion, the classic car industry attracts many wealthy collectors.

Classic literature

People often use the term in reference to great written works. But how do we know what counts? Italian author Italo Calvino (1923-1985) addresses the question in a notable book of his own, titled “Why Read the Classics?”

A classic book, in Calvino’s opinion, imprints itself on the imagination. It never finishes speaking: every time you re-read it, you get a new insight. It stands the test of time, not only for different readers in different eras, but also for the same reader at different times.

William Shakespeare is a classic example of classic literature! Although he died more than four centuries ago, his writing is timeless and speaks to all of us. Its enduring themes are profoundly human: love, death, power, free will, fate, ambition, and more.

How can a parent not fail to identify with Polonius when he counsels his son Laertes before he departs for Paris? The strong urge to pass on life’s lessons to the next generation is universal.
The feeling comes across strongly in the Hamlet scene, which also spawned the well-known proverb: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Polonius goes on to explain that in lending or borrowing money, one risks losing not only money but friends as well.