The Death of the Gentleman

Words are like people in that some of them just rub you the wrong way. I for one have never been much of a fan of the adjectives “spiritual,” “awesome,” or “classy”—but there’s one noun in particular that’s often used to describe males that I find to be an odious mix of nostalgic and pretentious: “gentleman.” A confession: I am not a gentleman, nor do I strive to be one.

It has become a cliché that there are no more gentlemen—and like most clichés, it happens to be true.

It’s this false veneer of respectability—a veneer that is usually used to hide deeper flaws—that most irritates me about the word.

Take a moment and reflect on the men you know. Sure, some may be polite or well-educated or well-groomed—but none of them seem to have the complete set of qualities that make up a gentleman: good manners, maturity, suavity, education, self-confidence, sophistication, impeccable personal hygiene, and a refined sense of style.

Well, the reason there are no more gentlemen anymore is that there never were any gentlemen. The ideal of the gentleman, like all ideals, is a fantasy.

It wasn’t always a fantasy, however. The word gentleman first came into being sometime in late medieval times. It simply denoted a man who belonged to a family that had a coat of arms. A gentleman could be good or bad, a killer or a saint—all that mattered was that he was from the upper classes.

And then somewhere along the line the idea that those from the upper classes were more refined and “better” than the lower classes came into play. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the connection to social class was dropped and the word became a synonym for the ideal man.

But let’s say you were indeed able to identify a man you know who exemplifies all the elements of a gentleman in the above thought experiment. I would bet that he’s really a douchebag deep down. Either that or he’s read way too many men’s magazines and has uncritically adopted some other douchebag’s paradigm of masculinity.It’s this false veneer of respectability—a veneer that is usually used to hide deeper flaws—that most irritates me about the word.

It’s this false veneer of respectability—a veneer that is usually used to hide deeper flaws—that most irritates me about the word.Call someone a gentleman and I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Didn’t Ted Bundy appear to be a gentleman? Didn’t so-called “gentleman planters” show no compunction about owning and torturing their fellow humans and dividing families for financial gain?

Call someone a gentleman and I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Didn’t Ted Bundy appear to be a gentleman? Didn’t so-called “gentleman planters” show no compunction about owning and torturing their fellow humans and dividing families for financial gain?

Words should elucidate, not obfuscate.

Good manners and education are important, of course. But we have perfectly acceptable adjectives like polite and well-read that describe these positive traits already. We shouldn’t fall back on some fantasy that can’t accurately describe the complexities of personality and behavior.

So gentlemen, let’s stop striving to be gentlemen. And the next time someone calls you one, take it as an insult.

  • March 18, 2016