Saturday, June 2, 2012

Word of the Day: “gentleman”

Having nothing original to say about this word, we cite our distinguished colleague Roger Kimball:

Certain key words live in a state of existential diminishment. Consider the word “Gentleman.” It was not so long ago that it named a critical moral-social-cultural aspiration. What happened to the phenomenon it named? Or think of the word “respectable.” It too has become what the philosopher David Stove called a “smile word,” that is, a word that names a forgotten or neglected or out-of-fashion social virtue that we might remember but no longer publicly practice. The word still exists, but the reality has been ironized out of serious discussion. It is hard to use straight. Just as it would be difficult to call someone “respectable” today without silently adding a dollop of irony, so it is with the word “gentleman.”

A sterling coinage, that -- smile word.  We shall endeavor to use it in future.

As for the term gentleman:  It is expected of a gentleman, to continue to adhere to the Code, even when in partibus.   When I wish to commend someone, I may even at this late date  refer to him as “a perfect gentleman”:  and this, without the shadow of a smile, but rather a steely gaze.   Indeed, I strive to become one myself;  though this, the reader will have noted, is not inconsistent with pouring seething invective upon nihilists, nominalists, and neuroscientists, whom I intend to insult, and would gladly meet upon the field of honor, with pistols, down by the river, at break of dawn.

Our colleague goes on:

Leo Strauss made the witty observation that the word “virtue,” which once referred to the manliness of a man, had come to refer primarily to the chastity of a woman. We’ve moved on from that, of course. Chastity was for centuries a prime theme of Western dramatic art even as it was an obsession of Western culture. Who can even pronounce the word these days without a knowing smile? And as for manliness, well, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote an entire book diagnosing (and lamenting) its mutation into ironized irrelevance.

Of the virile virtues, we may write in another place.  But this term chastity, indeed, in our unchaste times,  is fragile;  to attempt to use it in the marketplace would evoke either a leer or a stare.   Its natural habitat -- where it survives as firmly as ever -- is in the triad, flanked by fellow virtues on either side:    Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.

Christianity’s Three Musketeers.


Hmm, not much linguistic substance there.  Okay -- in a nutshell:
Our word gentleman comes from an Old French expression (in the modern form: gentilhomme).   At present, gentilhomme is even more obsolete, linguistically and socially, than gentleman.   The original sense of both included that of social rank; this sense has drained from the modern adjectives, gentle and French gentil ‘nice’.
This same French word has been borrowed in three forms: besides the earliest one, gentle, there are two, genteel and jaunty, which more nearly reflect the French pronunciation.  Our word gentile is ultimately related, though it comes, not from French, but from Latin: gentiles, the source of the French word as well.

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,

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