words

GRACIOUS

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In her Christmas message the Queen, paying tribute to President Mandela, called him "that most gracious of men". The Queen is also described as gracious in the National Anthem, so here was one head of state calling unto another, in the dignified manner of rulers. The difference is that what she meant when she called the President gracious is not necessarily what we mean when we apply the word to her.

In Latin gratus or gratum was a versatile word for anyone or anything that gave pleasure, thus causing gratitude, and a gratiosus was a popular person. But that whole family of words - gratus, gratia, gratuitus and their hangers-on - was already in a mess by the time we began to take it over in the Middle Ages. It wasn't always clear whether gracious people were so called because they were giving grace or because they were receiving it. English monarchs did both. It was by the grace of God that they had a divine right to do as they pleased, but grace was also the mercy they were expected to show towards their grateful subjects. Archbishops, on the other hand, were called His Grace only because of the favour bestowed on them from above, and the same went for dukes and duchesses. The scene has changed. Graciousness has long become detached from the other derivations of gratus, and is more often used for well-bred hostesses putting guests at ease over the teacups.

If it was right for the Queen to call Mandela gracious, it was not because of his position but because of his capacity for forgiveness. Here there's none of the toadying associated with the word on the one hand, nor of the condescension implied on the other; for once, the word has retrieved some of its old strength.

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