Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog


I not only enjoy words, I learn from them. Today I held the door for a young woman and, instead of the expected, ‘Thank you,’ received a quizzical glance. It reminded me of the word chivalry, now almost archaic if it isn’t already there. This word tells us a great deal about who we are today and where we came from historically.

The word comes to us, via French, from Latin caballus “horse” (also the origin of cavalry) and probably originally meant “horsemanship”. However, in the Middle Ages it became the term for the behavior expected of a knight: bravery, honor, strength, and gallantry toward women. I see the image of Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cape over a puddle before Queen Elizabeth I.

After the age of knighthood, the word lingered on, its meaning narrowing to simply “gallantry toward women”. By the turn of the 20th century the word was dying out, though the concept was not.

I can recall a lovely orientation session at the beginning of my studentship at the University of North Carolina, under the spreading elms of the old quadrangle behind the Well. This session was for men only and was devoted to an excursion into the character of the “Carolina Gentleman” and the rules of chivalry expected of me and my male counterparts.  It focused on the development of a sense of gallantry toward women.

I suppose the necessity for an orientation session on the subject indicated that the concept itself was struggling even in the mid 50s. Then, when the feminist movement hit the 60s, it became politically incorrect: showing favoritism toward the ‘fair sex’ was taken as an expression of deep-seated anti-feminine sentiment. Chivalry does, of course, rub against the grain of equality.

So why did it ever arise? Well, I grew up in a rural Southern community before the feminist movement and my recollections all point to an understanding on the part of men that women were making great sacrifices by remaining at home, taking care of them, and raising the children. Men made sacrifices, too, for the entire economy of the family rested on their shoulders, and that was a burden they would not be able to sustain without a helpmeet.

But men were at least able to leave the house, to live in two environments; women were tied to one. In deference to that, men removed their hats and stood when women entered the room, never entered a door before a woman but always held it open for her, and offered several other similar symbolic gestures of appreciation for their role as birth-givers, child-raisers, and husband-tolerators.

Very, very few men mistreated their wives in the community I grew up in and those surrounding. I only heard of occasional cases. And the chivalry of opening doors and removing hats was probably rote behavior in most cases. However, it was there, it bespoke a gentler age (no drive-by shootings), and now it is gone.

5 Responses to “Chivalry”

  1. George Krasker Says:

    The man held the door open for the woman to walk through. She said, “I didn’t need you to do that – I am quite capable of opening the door for myself.” He replied, “Madam, I did that, not because you are a lady, but because I am a gentleman.”

    I think that this is a tale of our times.

  2. Colin Burt Says:

    At the very old fashioned terribly stiff upper lip British boy’s school I attended in the 1940s we were drilled on etiquette, one facet of which was the yielding of a seat on a fully packed bus or train to any person of the female persuasion standing. This we all did – well most of the time. It is a very chastening experience as the ‘chivalrous’ male ages when, for the first time, a young woman gets up to offer him HER seat ! Quite spoiled my day.

  3. Stargzer Says:

    The few times I’ve taken the subway during rush hour it’s been every man or woman for him- or herself, but when it comes to doors, if I’m the first one there, I’ll routinely hold it open for whoever is behind me or coming through from the other side.

  4. Danielle Says:

    Thank you for opening the subject of chivalry. Sir, if you would open to door for me, I would gladly say thank you! I feel lost in this world of selfishness, and where women want to prove they’re men, and where men eare xpected to act like women! I would rather be a woman and know that I am weaker physically! I know that! I don’t need to prove it to anyone. I would rather have the stronger sex be a man, and me be a woman! I think that is one of the reasons why we have so many divorces today. Women want to take the place of the men! And some men want the women to take their place. Either one is no good! Why not learn what is our possibilities as who we are and expand on that? I would rather have gallantry instituted in schools, and learn manerisms to our children. It seems to me, we have lost our identity, and for that matter, our morality as well! I think, respect is the key to this dilemma! Thank you on behalf of that lady that forgot her manerism, for opening the door for her!!!

  5. CJ L Says:

    How come no one has addressed the fact that women have to make up their minds about the contradiction of equality and chivalry. Everything is not a fairy tail nor is the whole world about you.
    When they stop referring to the ladies room as the little girls room and admitting to having sex instead of sleeping with someone, perhaps then I can take more seriously the role of a gentleman. You are not a princess, nor is this life designed to make all of your fantasies a reality. Expect nothing unless you’ve done he work to deserve it. Stop dressing for one and then get upset when the wrong person notices. Stop looking for special treatment and open your own doors and perhaps someone will take you seriously.

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