There are certain words that have been … I hesitate to say “ruined”, but at least mutated irreparably by the Internet. Aesthetic is one of them. Originally coined by the philosopher Immanuel Kant to refer to the science of sensory perception, today it is widely accepted as an abbreviation of the phrase aesthetically pleasing. In the early 2010s, this sense of the word became a hobby horse for aficionados of the “Vaporwave” subculture. They used it as a stamp of approval for any piece of music that matched the genre’s cybernated, retro feel, often stylising it as ａｅｓｔｈｅｔｉｃ and throwing in a few random Japanese characters for good measure.
Vaporwave may be past its prime at this point, but aesthetic remains a buzzword among the extremely online, now as a flowery synonym for appearance or look. It should be noted, though, that the usage is slightly more nuanced than that: an aesthetic is manmade (curated pairs nicely here), and generally describes an environment, or a collection, rather than a single entity. You probably wouldn’t compliment someone on the aesthetic of their face — the word is better-suited to something like a room in a house or a repertoire of outfits. Or an Instagram page. Instagrammers, in fact, seem to really like the term. Merely associating it with a profile is a compliment in and of itself, since it implies consistency and attention-to-detail.
An aesthetic can also be a type. One of several hundreds, actually, according to this (regularly updated!) list. What’s your aesthetic? If you’re into sci-fi tropes and Industrial Revolution-era technology, it might be steampunk. If you like neon signs, lasers, and black lights, it might be glowwave. If you’re a scholar with a penchant for lilac, it might be pastel academia. And then there’s the family of “-cores”. Cottagecore, an aesthetic with an obsessive focus on floral prints, back-to-basics crafts and cooking, and Wellington boots, is perhaps the most of-the-moment, but it is no accurate representation of just how weirdly specific aesthetics can go. There’s also bardcore (centred around medieval-style covers of contemporary pop songs), honeycore (for all things apiary), and cartelcore (think Grand Theft Auto: Vice City). This particular naming convention is astoundingly productive; it seems as though every minute, someone, somewhere, is attaching the “-core” suffix to an unsuspecting noun.
It’s clear that these words are intended to emulate hardcore, which itself does not refer to any individual aesthetic, but is often used to modify the names of genres, ideologies, and lifestyles to mean extreme. Hardcore metalheads, feminists, and water-polo players abound, as opposed to their softcore counterparts, who are just in it for the wristband.
The origins of hardcore have little to do with subcultures and political movements, however. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest recorded instance of the term can be found in an advertisement in an 1842 issue of The Times, where it refers to a gravel-like foundational material. Unsurprisingly, it was also used in the 19th century to describe the literal hard cores of fruits and vegetables. Then, in 1916, English artist and critic Roger Fry published a lecture in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs in which he mentioned there being “a hard core of anarchists” in socialist circles. Though the allusion to anarchy gives this instance the flavour of how the term is used today, in the mid-20th century it was more commonly used in sociological discourse as a means of differentiating strata of poverty; hardcore, as Arthur M Schlesinger explains in his biography of John F Kennedy, was “bureaucratese” for the lowest social class. At the same time, the term was also synonymous with unruly, as this excerpt from a 1960 public sanitation report shows:
A total of 959 inspections was made of food premises during the year and it was found that whilst the large majority of food handlers have maintained a good standard of cleanliness, there is still the hardcore who have to be continually watched and kept in line.
This is potentially why people began wearing hardcore as a badge of honour, but we mustn’t forget the role of art and the media played in leading the adjective to the meaning of serious and uncompromising that it carries today. According to the OED, April 1957 saw the first occurrence of the phrase “hardcore pornography”, and it was in the very same month that the phrase “hardcore jazz” was first used, too. It’s not clear which was first to the punch — let’s say they’re both winners. By the time hardcore had entered the active vocabulary of the average music fan, it had become a useful facility for qualifying, specifying, and even creating new subgenres, especially those under the umbrella of punk rock. It was in the 1980s that the word was first disassembled and sold for parts: on a Usenet newsgroup (a precursor to an Internet forum), a punk fan referred to the “speedcore guitar” on a track by the band 45 Grave. Little did that person know they were not only inventing a new word but also christening an entire genre which wouldn’t become fully-fledged until the following decade. From this flowed a dizzying number of coinages following the same nomenclature practice — grindcore, mathcore, filthcore, nerdcore, deathcore, crunkcore … shall I go on?
The use of the -core suffix to describe non-musical fandoms was the next logical step, and that’s how we arrived at cottagecore. Quite a leap, when you realise how un-cottagecore some of the aforementioned punk genres are, but that’s probably no accident, given that irony is a major driving force behind the development of Internet-speak. Irony is what brought this linguistic quirk full circle; the Fandom Wikia list includes “applecore”, which is likely just someone taking advantage of the opportunity for wordplay rather than a real aesthetic. Then again, the idea that there’s a sect of people who have a genuine preoccupation with images of apples isn’t all that far fetched— if the whole aesthetics phenomenon proves anything, it’s that there’s really no accounting for taste.