Grammar: Genteelism

Posted January 18, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Self-Editing, Writing

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”.

Post Contents:

Common Term “Genteel” Term Common Term “Genteel” Term
boxer pugilist groin lady parts
the lower extremities
bull gentleman cow leg limb
die lose one’s life
no longer with us
pass away
rest in peace
pregnant enciente
interesting condition
false teeth dentures prostitute lady of leisure
lady of light virtue
lady of the evening
woman of ill-repute
woman of the night
fire let go
let someone go
smell odor
fuck sexual intercourse
sleeping with __
spit expectorate
going to bed retires sweat perspire
Today’s Politically Correct Genteelisms
blind visually impaired preindustrial
developing countries
disturbed unbalanced mentally the old
senior citizens
lay off reduction in force the poor the disadvantaged

The Not-So-Genteelisms

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.

Less-Than-Genteel Euphemisms
ass booty
nether cheek
menstruation monthly
monthly friend/visitor
my aunt came to visit
women’s troubles
condom French letter
pee spend a penny
sniff a rose
see a man about a dog
fix my face
answer the call of nature
die bite the dust
bought the farm
dirt nap
feet first
go the way of all flesh
kick the bucket
snuff it
pregnant knocked up
eat for two
fart breaking wind
pass wind
prostitute business woman
working girl
fat big-boned shit doo-doo
number two
drop a bomb
fucking act of darkness
haul (one’s) ashes
hide the sausage
horizontal mambo
make love
make the beast with two backs
toilet bathroom
comfort station
little boys room
groin barn door
family jewels
vomit drive the porcelain bus
get sick

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