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Last night I read a book and came upon the phrase:

The reply was vintage Emily.

I do know exactly what it means; I guess the Collins explanation n°4

You can use vintage to describe something which is the [...] most typical of its kind

is what comes close: the reply Emily made was typical for her.

Still: where does this idiom/expression (namely, when it is used with persons as in the above sentence) come from? Does it have an origin or did it develop over the years?

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The word vintage comes to us from the French and ultimately from the Latin vinum, meaning wine. Per the OED, originally (15th century), vintage just meant the grape harvest and by the 16th century was applied to the process of wine making (gathering, pressing, fermenting, etc.) The OED finds the first use of vintage as particularly good wine in 1604, and by 1746 it was applied to wine from a particular and particularly good harvest.

Vintage became an attributive noun, modifying nouns like day, dinner, festival, and home (the last patterned after harvest home, a festival to commemorate the end of the harvest season). The OED finds the first attributive sense in 1857, and notes that in 1888 the Encyclopedia Brittanica uses vintage class to denote particularly fine wine.

In 1939, the OED finds the first attribution of the jump from the best season of a wine to the best (or the best example) of a person's activity or character:

With a few minor reservations, this [play] may be recommended as vintage Coward. (Country Life, 2/11/1939)

So this was a journey of centuries from a noun for wine and then for good wine, to a modifier about wine and then to a modifier for the best wine, and finally to a modifier of people, give the best example of their behavior or character.

  • Do I assume correctly that in 1939 "vintage Coward" meant: "the best play Coward ever did" (and not: "a play that is so much like Coward")? And is the very last of your (really interesting!) explanation i.e. someone's best given example of their character, your own deduction or can it be found elsewhere? – seagull Mar 20 '17 at 9:21
  • Vintage Coward is the best example of Coward. I haven't read the issue of Country Life but the word "recommended" leads me to believe that the best example is also considered of excellent quality. The OED (last written supplement) defines this usage as "the best period of a person's work" and "classic", which I interpret to mean best example and best of, respectively. – deadrat Mar 20 '17 at 9:26
  • In the OED citation vintage Coward is better understood as a somewhat more literal use of the metaphor: "characteristic of Coward's best period". Coward's 'major' plays had been written between 1924 and 1932; after that he worked mostly in one-acts and musical revues. – StoneyB Mar 20 '17 at 11:13
  • Yay! 40K! Bored now. Buh-bye for a while. Anyway, what's the point now that they killed Rathony? – deadrat Mar 21 '17 at 4:17
  • @deadrat Rathony wasn't "killed". It was more like a voluntary vacation, perhaps. Rathony is back now. Btw, I wish to see you back as well, bud. There's another site you might like. It's brand new. :) – NVZ Sep 22 '17 at 18:45
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"Vintage Coward is the best example of Coward." (deadrat)

"Vintage Coward is better understood as a somewhat more literal use of the metaphor: "characteristic of Coward's best period". (StoneyB)

I'm with StoneyB. Here are two definitions I found at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/vintage to back up this point of view:

  1. Serving to identify or set apart an individual or group: characteristic, distinctive, individual, peculiar, typical.

  2. representative of the best and most typical: vintage Shakespeare.

Now back to your original question:

The reply was vintage Emily.

In practice in recent times, the meaning has been extended even a bit further than what StoneyB said. Here's an example: Suppose Andy, a mediator who's been trying to help you reach a settlement with a school district, is an eternal optimist, and you're discussing Andy's latest expression of optimism with B. Here's how the dialogue might go:

You: Did you see the email that came in from Andy this afternoon?

B: No, I was busy in the lab all day. What did he think of the district's latest counter-proposal?

You: Vintage Andy. You know, "Let's assume the district is negotiating in good faith, bla bla bla."

B: Yeah, I know what you mean.

"Vintage Andy" means that Andy was behaving true to character -- however that might be. It could be charming, it could be endearing, it could be maddening, it could be anything. This is like Definition 3 above, but maybe even goes a little farther.

I don't know exactly what Emily's creator had in mind, though, given the lack of context or link.

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