WORDS; Genteel

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".


React Now

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

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power