It’s a Victorian reaction, genteelism. After all, one can hardly mention leg if a delicate flower of womanhood is within earshot! And do consider how this fragile beauty would swoon if she were to hear of…someone…sweating!
Today, our genteelisms are politically correct what with mentally challenged, height challenged, weight challenged, __ disabled, etc.
There are also euphemisms for those words or phrases it would be rude to say in mixed company.
Why “Genteelism” is Important to Writers
The concept of genteelism is one which can be applied to characters in a book. Do you want your character to sound like a pretentious idiot or a bureaucrat? Use a genteelism to reinforce that impression. Is your character more of an upperclass sort? Use a word that is less, well, vulgar, my dear.
“Indeed, a good synonym for ‘genteelism’ in the business-writing context is ‘bureaucratese’. And probably no one wants to sound like a bureaucrat when they write…” Simon Busch’s Are your ‘good manners’ letting you down?“
One way to determine if a word is “appropriate” is to look it up in the dictionary. If its entry includes usage labels such as “nonstandard” or “substandard”, it won’t be a word used by the more prestigious class within a community.
“The point about genteelism is that it indicates primness and snootiness rather than any real dignity of thought and character.” – Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
Genteelism has also influenced how we use I and/or me (see the post on “Me, Myself, and I“) with too many of us believing that one should only use I, as me is only used by the ignorant. And in truth, it’s simply another shibboleth we need to lay by the wayside.
Do consider reading Joan Acocella’s “The English Wars:
The battle over the way we should speak” for the New Yorker. It’s an interesting and fun article on the idea of genteelism and refers to a number of slang dictionaries which might be of interest.
Grammar Explanations is…
…an evolving list of the structural rules and principles that determines where words are placed in phrases or sentences as well as how the language is spoken. Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if it makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone… Are there areas of grammar with which you struggle? If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page and consider sharing this Grammar Explanation with friends by tweeting it.
|Credit to: Kidder, 108; H.W. Fowler; Richard Nordquist’s “genteelism (language)“|
|Definition: A type of euphemism in which a common word is replaced by a word considered more “refined” or “proper”.
|Common Term||“Genteel” Term||Common Term||“Genteel” Term|
the lower extremities
|die||lose one’s life
no longer with us
rest in peace
|false teeth||dentures||prostitute||lady of leisure
lady of light virtue
lady of the evening
woman of ill-repute
woman of the night
let someone go
sleeping with __
|going to bed||retires||sweat||perspire
|Today’s Politically Correct Genteelisms|
|disturbed||unbalanced mentally||the old
|lay off||reduction in force||the poor||the disadvantaged|
We tend to think of the genteelisms as applying to high society versus lower classes when actually these euphemisms change depending upon different historical periods, on whether the replacements are being used by parents, children, or teens, etc. Something to consider when setting up your character’s status or setting.