• couth •
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Suave, sophisticated, cultured, well-mannered, refined in manner and manners.
Notes: By now you know that we love to expose false orphan negatives, negative words that have no positive counterpart (inept, impeccable, nonplussed). Today's positive word has always been around, but it dropped out of sight (and sound) for a century or two (see Word History). The adverb is couthly and the word itself is often used as a noun, though we see no reason not to say couthness.
In Play: To American ears, today's word still has humorous overtones: "No, I wouldn't say that it was couth to ask Noreen's sister out when you brought Noreen home from the concert." But more and more you hear it in perfectly serious contexts: "Loretta, I thought it very couth of you to wear the sweater your mother knitted for you to her birthday party."
Word History: Today's Good Word started out as an independent word, became a negative orphan, then was revived by 'back derivation' (removing the un-) fairly recently. It was originally the past participle of can, which in Old and Middle English meant "know" when used as an independent verb (not the auxiliary can : could). Kith, as in 'kith and kin', is a variant of couth and like today's word originally meant "(those) known". In the 16th-18th centuries the meaning of uncouth changed to what it is today and couth was left behind. Then, at the end of the 19th century, writers began to resurrect couth as a word with the opposite meaning of uncouth, first facetiously but more recently quite seriously. (Today we are grateful for the very couth decision on the part of Paul Rowland of Wallasey, England, to submit this Good Word for our series.)
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