WORDS; Genteel

Share
Related Topics
POOR JOHN Prescott had a bad half-hour in the House last week when he got his papers mixed as well as his syntax and gave the sketch- writers something to laugh at. Of course I read all their accounts, while feeling rather mean about it - the polite thing to do when someone makes a fool of himself in a public place is to look the other way.

The sketch-writers are a pretty mean bunch themselves, but then it's their job, just as court jesters were paid to remind kings that they were there only by the grace of God and were human like everyone else. All the same, I thought Simon Hoggart was being unnecessarily gratuitous (as the tautologists like to put it) when, having rubbished Mr Prescott, he had to turn on Alan Beith.

"Genteel Alan Beith" he called him. Admittedly Mr Beith has nice manners and an accent that would do him no discredit at an old-fashioned vicarage tea party, but did he really deserve this?

I suppose it's just remotely possible that Mr Hoggart was thinking of the earlier meaning of genteel, when it wasn't an insult. But that would be no excuse. Don't you get irritated with people who insist they are using a word "in its proper sense" when all they are doing is dredging up an obsolete meaning which no one wants any more, unless to understand something in a book?

It's hard to say when genteel changed - when it became no longer a good thing to say about someone - because we can't always tell when people were being ironic. And it depended very much on who was talking. But there was always, I think, something a little affected about it. We already had the word gentle in the 17th century, which had meant much the same, but this was a time when it began to be fashionable to pepper one's speech with French, to say "distrait", for example, instead of the equally serviceable "distracted". Indeed, when it first crossed the Channel genteel was spelled in a Frenchified way, gentile or gentil, and seems to have altered its spelling only to save confusion with the same word with a capital "G".

So when Jane Austen used it one can never be entirely sure whether she was smiling that smile of hers or whether she meant it straight. Certainly when Chesterfield wrote to his son, "Though you should be told that you are genteel, still aim at genteeler", he was being dead serious. Fifty years later, though, shopkeepers would be congratulating themselves for being in a genteel occupation, a thought that would hardly have pleased Lord Chesterfield. After that there was nothing for the gentry to do but to say the word with a sneer, and for the rest of us to follow suit in due course.

Now it's mostly about those who come unstuck trying to talk posh, but it's no longer much good. Fowler had a whole list of "genteelisms" (perspire for sweat and so on), but Burchfield in his New Fowler scrapped it, remarking that "any such list is bound to seem banal and uninstructive".

NICHOLAS BAGNALL

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Full Stack Developer (.NET 4.0, ASP.NET, MVC, Ajax, WCF,SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Full Stack ...

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn