Friday, June 05, 2015

Our Dying Language (01) - Gentleman

In our wonderful language we tend to misuse and abuse words and this misuse unfortunately falls into a trend. At that point people misuse the word more than they use it and the definition changes. That is usually a shame because the word becomes a mere synonym for words we already have, and the unique term with its distinctive meaning is destroyed more thoroughly than a unlucky gambler shoved through a wood chipper by a bookie. In the end suddenly the word is useless qnd broken for its original purpose. Furthermore, in its place, we now have long explanations and paragraphs instead of just the word, the one term, with the commonly recognized meaning. We have lost something. This happens to multiple words. This is worse than disuse. It's misuse and we can never resurrect these words. The people that did this, and I was born later, should be brought back to earth and then backhanded repeatedly. Although that might be a harsh consequence.  I have others in mind beyond this example, hence the number in the title, but once I run out I am going to have to perform research.  We have a long history in our language, how hard can it be?  But here a dead word that we resurrected as a misshapen zombie.
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - "Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Today's example is brought to you by Clive Staples Lewis (and me) but mostly C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest intellectual giants of western civilization of the last century or so.  The excerpt is from Mere Christianity.  He illustrates his point well and concisely, noting how our ideas of what ought to be actually hurt how things are.

Which is why we should never let Social Justice Warriors have a say in anything.  Transforming our ideas of what the Gentlemen should be, and how they should act, into an expectation of how they act has transformed a factual statement and an objective notation into a moral quantifier and an opinion. Genuine objectivity is rare enough but we actually pulled some of it out of our own language and killed it  dead, while we forced its family and friends to watch helplessly as we slowly stripped the flesh from its bones.

Subjectively I might have noticed it because I hang on the philosopher's words and I despise having one word transformed into a paragraph, unnecessary words borne solely out of stupidity and some warm and fuzzy nonsense.  Personally I love the word in its original meaning because I embody the word in its original meaning, despite that we do not, strictly speaking, embrace nobility in the United States,  I now hear and read weak-willed ninnies accuse other people of not being a gentleman, which is just a hoity-toity mangled throwback saying outright that they don't like someone.

If you don't like someone, say it in as few words as possible, yet be precise.  (Especially since there are plenty of people that I didn't like at one point or another and have great affection for now.  Not liking someone is no reason to burn bridges and close doors.  Do not miss out on good people just because you do not like someone; tastes change.  Also do not hold it against someone if they do not like you; their tastes change).  It is probably a better idea to not tell someone that you do not like them.  Doing so is mere self-indulgence.   If you do not approve of someone's behavior and that behavior affects you, then that is the point that should be made concisely and precisely. Telling someone that he is not a gentleman is only about your taste and your reaction and it is about your indulgence.

My friend Scott has attempted to replace the word in his phraseology.  "Landed Gentry" is a fine term.  May it pass far and wide in use.  It sounds dignified to the ear and easy to the tongue.  It is still inferior because it is more letters, takes up more space, contains more syllables, takes longer to say, and compared to the original word that it modifies, is redundant in its construction.  Gentleman used to mean an individual whom was landed by inheritance and possessed a coat of arms by that same inheritance,  If the meaning was not murdered so long ago, this modification to the original term would be redundant on the face of it, without the explanation of the history.

Yet the deed is done. We killed a good word.It has been spoiled for its original purpose.

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