Printable Version
Pronunciation: jen-teel Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Very civil, perfectly courteous, polite and elegant in dress and manners, utterly free of any vulgarity or rudeness, exhibiting good breeding.

Notes: During my discussion of the status of profanity in English with Linton Weeks of NPR back in 2010, this word kept pushing against the back of my mind. Genteel has an adverb, genteelly, and a slightly different noun, gentility, which I prefer to the more mundane genteelness. Of course, gentilesse is still there for the daring conversationalist.

In Play: Some think that US radio and TV networks have led us away from a world that valued gentility into a world of mounting vulgarity: "Wouldn't you like to hear genteel discussions of politics on TV again?" However, the mixture of the genteel with the vulgar has been the stock of life since time immemorial: "I can't imagine why a woman of such genteel upbringing as Portia Radcliffe would be seen in public with a woman of ill repute like Rhonda Blokkenbeck."

Word History: Today's Good Word is interesting because it reflects a change of mind among English speakers. In the 13th century English borrowed Old French gentil "high-born, of noble birth" and quickly converted it into gentle. By the 16th century there were English noblemen who needed the original sense of the French word, so they reborrowed the same word, this time keeping the French pronunciation. (The spelling was changed, no doubt, to accommodate those of lower birth.) The French word originated as Latin gentilis "of the same family" from gens, gentis "family, clan". This word came from the root of gignere "beget", which also gave us gingerly, again via French. The same PIE root emerged in English via Old Germanic as kin and the noun kind and German Kind "child". (I suppose it would only be genteel to thank Rob Towart for suggesting we write up gingerly, since my research of that related word led me to today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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