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WORDS; Genteel

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".