Word Confusion: Genteel vs Gentile vs Gentle

Posted October 24, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 1 September 2017

This is a recent word confusion I’m encountering and very disconcerting: genteel versus gentile. It’s not to say that a Gentile can’t be genteel, but the context simply isn’t working.

“Women juggling careers and families had little time for such gentile gestures.”

And gentle was added in, as I ran across Internet references which noted that it was also confused with the first two.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Genteel Gentile Gentle
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Cambridge Dictionary

Five well-dressed people taking tea on the lawn beside a lake while another is fishing

“The Garden at Hampton House with Mr and Mrs David Garrick Taking Tea” is a painting by Johann Zoffany, 1762. It is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Quite the genteel picnic.

The pope dressed in white, sitting in a chair and raising a hand to bless people

“Pope Paul VI” is an official picture of the pope by Vatican City and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, you can’t get more obviously Gentile than this…

A wood nuthatch sitting in someone's hand eating sunflower seeds

“Sitta europaea Wildlife” is Paweł Kuźniar’s own work (User:Jojo) under the GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 licenses, via Wikimedia Commons

Be gentle when holding a bird.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective Adjective; Proper Noun
Plural: Gentiles
Adjective 1; Noun 2;
Verb 1, intransitive & transitive

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: gentles
Past tense or past participle: gentled
Gerund or present participle: gentling

Polite, refined, or respectable, often in an affected or ostentatious way Adjective:
[Gentile] Not Jewish

  • [Of a person] Not belonging to one’s own religious community
  • [In the Mormon church] Non-Mormon

[Of a linguistic expression] Expressing nationality or local origins

[Chiefly anthropology] Of, relating to, or indicating a nation or clan, especially a gens

Proper Noun:
A person who is not Jewish

Heathen, pagan

[Of a person] Mild in temperament or behavior

  • Kind or tender
  • [Archaic; of a person] Noble or having the qualities attributed to noble birth
    • Courteous
    • Chivalrous

Moderate in action, effect, or degree

  • Not harsh or severe
  • [Of a slope] Gradual

[Archaic] One of good birth or relatively high station

[Fishing] A maggot, especially the larva of a blowfly, used as bait

Verb, intransitive:
Make or become gentle

  • Calm or pacify

Verb, transitive:
Make or become gentle

  • Calm or pacify
  • Make (an animal) docile by gentle handling
She was quite the genteel lady.

Holding your pinky in the air while drinking tea does not make you genteel.

They lived in genteel poverty.

The game seemed to be some genteel form of American football.

The mansion had an atmosphere of genteel elegance and decay.

He took elocution lessons to try to make his accent sound more genteel.

Christianity spread from Jewish into gentile cultures.

The Jews lived uneasily in the gentile neighborhood.

Nomen gentile is the name of an ancient Roman’s family, his surname if you will.

Proper Noun:
“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the gentiles…” Malachai 1:11

You must not associate with those Gentiles, child.

When a Gentile was converted to Judaism, he was called a proselyte.

Chooch was a gentle, sensitive dog.

Sir John was a good and gentle knight.

All it took was a little gentle persuasion.

A gentle breeze wafted through the leaves.

Thank god, it was a gentle embankment he thought, as he rolled down the hill.

Ol’ Henry preferred fishing with gentles, for they were easy to come by.

The king was much loved, as he treated both the gentles and the commoners with respect and kindness.

Verb, intransitive:
Cobb’s tone gentled a little.

Verb, transitive:
The peaceful sunset gentled her dreadful mood.

Tweety had been gentled enough to sit on my hand.

James was renowned for gentling horses.

Adjective: pseudogenteel, quasi-genteel
Adverb: genteely, quasi-genteelly
Noun: genteelness
Adjective: nongentile, pro-gentile, ungentile
Noun: nongentile, pro-Gentile
Adjective: gentler, gentlest, overgentle, ungentle
Adverb: gently, overgently
Noun: gentleness
History of the Word:
Late 16th century in the sense of fashionable, stylish is from the French gentil meaning well-born.

From the 17th century to the 19th century, the word was used in such senses as of good social position, having the manners of a well-born person, or well-bred.

The 19th century is when the ironic or derogatory implication arose.

Late Middle English from the Latin gentilis meaning of a family or nation, of the same clan (used in the Vulgate to refer to non-Jews), from gens, gent- meaning family, race, from the root of gignere meaning beget. 1 Middle English from the Old French gentil meaning highborn, noble, from the Latin gentilis meaning of the same clan (see gentile). The original sense was nobly born, hence courteous, chivalrous.

By the mid-16th century, it meant mild, moderate in action or disposition.

2 Late 16th century and probably from an obsolete sense of the adjectival version of soft, pliant.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Ghandi Ji is Sfk0756’s own work under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.