Although it’s possible to use the word sarcastically, most men would be quite happy to be called a gentleman. GQ Magazine is not, as the ungentlemanly would say, “Gay Quarterly,” but Gentlemen’s Quarterly. The quartlerly piece is an historical remnant of its early incarnation as a supplement to Esquire magazine; it was a fashion addendum published every three months – quarterly. GQ started life in 1931 as Apparel Arts, became part of Esquire in 1957, and was bought by Conde Nast in 1983 to become the monthly GQ that is now circulating.
So what is it about the word gentleman that GQ readers hope applies to them?
The word comes from the Old French gentilz hom, a “gentle man,” and the word gentle comes from the Latin gentilis meaning belonging to the same race. It’s this root word gentle that does the harder work. Way back in the 13th century, to describe someone as gentle was to indicate that they were well-born and belonged to a family of some position.
The sort of behavior one expected from someone of gentle birth was honor, nobility, generosity, courtesy, and polite. It was – and still can be – used as an adjective to describe a man but is now just part of the whole word, gentleman.
A fascinating use of the word gentle is as an adjective to mean enchanted or haunted by fairies. Some folks use the phrase “the gentle people” to refer to fairies, and in the book The History of Carrickfergus by Samuel McSkimin, he says, “The large hawthorns growing singly…are deemed sacred to fairies and are hence called gentle thorns.”
Although it is used primarily as a positive appelation, it can have some negative or sarcastic uses. The devil is sometimes called the gentleman in black; a pirate can be described as a gentleman of fortune; a highwayman had the label gentleman of the road, which is also used for a hobo.
Oddly enough, the word as a whole can be used as an adjective to refer to someone who follows a profession or trade, but in such a way as to be better than the average person. So a gentleman farmer is higher up the social scale than a farmer; a gentleman thief is almost a good thing to be; a gentleman adventurer has a ring about it that sounds much better than just a common explorer. Note, though, that a gentleman friend is different – it’s a boyfriend.
Using the shortened version, gent, is typically in order to ascribe a sort of unworthiness to the person to whom the word is directed. And of course, if you ask for the gents, you won’t be shown a group of classy men but a row of glassy urinals!
And so, gentle reader, I come the end of this scholarly piece. Let me know what you think and I will be happy to respond – you have my gentleman’s agreement on that!
Thanks to Marina Herold for suggesting this word. It would be ungentlemanly of me to not mention her.