Mind your language

Are you guilty of ‘genteelism’?

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

‘Everyone’s been very kind to my husband and I,’ said someone behind me in a (spaced) queue. That is the classic genteelism. We are taught when young not to say ‘Me and my friend went swimming’ and end up talking nonsense. We’d never say ‘very kind to I’, but the genteel yoking cannot be shaken off.

I’ve been entertained by looking up ‘Genteelism’ in the first edition of Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). He characterised it as ‘the rejecting of the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, and the substitution of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebeian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind and our nobility’. (Like Wodehouse, Fowler expected his readers to recognise a Shakespeare quotation. Here it is Hotspur’s account of the complaint by a well-dressed lord about soldiers carrying dead bodies past him.)


Some examples that Fowler gives convince. It sounds niminy-piminy to use assist instead of help; distingué for striking; edifice for building; endeavour for try; odour for smell; perspire for sweat; sufficient for enough. But there are surprises. Instead of stomach, Fowler counsels belly, which I wouldn’t use in most circumstances. Always to use drunk in place of tipsy would be too hard on people like my husband.

Fowler prefers looking-glassto the genteelism mirror. In this he adumbrates the U (upper-class) choice identified in Noblesse Oblige, published in 1956. Similarly with sofa for couch, and napkin for serviette. Such genteelisms are not the usage of the gentry. But commenting on mirror, Fowler allows its use in marble halls. There is no such straining for aristocratic grandeur in the use of mirror today — nor always then, if the Daily Mirror (founded 1903) is evidence.

Some of Fowler’s genteelisms also come in his list of ‘Wardour Street’ terms, by which meant archaisms, like the antiques sold there. These include anent for about and ere for before. I don’t know anyone who’d use those seriously now. Today, a shifting list of politically taboo words governs our own genteelisms.

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