The Truth About Gentlemen

Did You Know….?

The origin of the word “gentleman” is not, as one might reasonably expect, from “gentle” and “man.” Rather, the “gentle” part comes from another twiglet on the branch of words descending from the French word gentil – that word being “genteel,” meaning terribly polite or refined.

Montesquiou, Robert de - Boldini
A gentleman, then, is one who has impeccable manners, rather than a gentle man. This explains a lot about gentlemen. But wait – where does this branch grow from? A trunk, naturally – a Latin trunk, in this case. The Latin word is gens, meaning people, family, or Roman clan.

So a gentleman is one of a particular people-group, member of a particular family or clan, rather than a particularly gentle man. The standard, then, is not behaviour but birth. But where, I ask myself, do trunks come from? From roots. In this case, the Proto-Indo-European root *ǵenh₁-, which means to beget, birth or produce. To, in fact, generate. (Same roots, different trunk. Language makes for some weird trees. Probably banyans.)

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So a gentleman is one who has been begotten or birthed. At this point, I would argue, regardless of whether you are going up or down the tree, the word “gentleman” means very little more than the word “man”, and therefore you should all feel free to create – sorry, generate – your own definitions. Which I hope you will share in the comments. Gentlewomen also welcome.

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7 thoughts on “The Truth About Gentlemen

  1. A-ha, I learned something new today. The impeccable manners part I was sure of but not the birthed part. Fun fact 🙂

  2. The first thing I think of when I hear “gentleman” is a man holding a door open for his lady. But now I will think of a person of notable birth!

    • Holding a door open is indeed classic gentlemanry. In New Zealand, which prides itself on gender equality (relatively speaking), it’s more common to find door-holding as a gender non-specific courtesy. Whoever gets to the door first holds it open for whoever’s coming behind.

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