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Historically, a "masterpiece" was a work of a very high standard produced to obtain membership of a guild or academy in various areas of the visual arts and crafts. The form masterstik is recorded in English or Scots in a set of Aberdeen guild regulations dated to , whereas "masterpiece" is first found in , already outside a guild context, in a Ben Jonson play. In English, the term rapidly became used in a variety of contexts for an exceptionally good piece of creative work, and was "in early use, often applied to man as the 'masterpiece' of God or Nature". Originally, the term masterpiece referred to a piece of work produced by an apprentice or journeyman aspiring to become a master craftsman in the old European guild system. His fitness to qualify for guild membership was judged partly by the masterpiece, and if he was successful, the piece was retained by the guild.
To save this word, you'll need to log in. You probably recognize magnum "great" as a Latin word that shows up in altered forms in several English words, and perhaps you can also come up with a few that are related to opus "work". Magnitude, magnanimous, opulent, and operate are some obvious relations of the two. Magnum opus, which entered English in the late 18th century, retains the original Latin spelling and the literal meaning "great work.