My friend started an interesting discussion about being a gentleman today on facebook. I am copying an excerpt of some of the comments for you viewing pleasure. At the time of my writing he already has 8 comments, many of them offering some idea of what being a gentleman means to them.
I thought the response by Braxton was of particular interest because he basically states that gentleman means what it meant in one historical setting or it has no real meaning at all.
In a sense, I think Braxton is right. Not that it can only mean what it meant historically, but that it doesn’t mean anything at all. Instead, it can mean a lot of things but doesn’t necessarily mean any of them. This is what is often called “semantic range.” A dictionary can often help us limit the semantic range of a word. I listed below the first 16 choices from dictionary.com. We know it can’t mean all of these at the same time. Some of them are actually mutually exclusive. For instance, when you call someone a gentleman you probably do not mean he is a smuggler and a man regarded as having qualities of refinement.
So how do we decide what gentlemen means? We allow the author to decide. We have to try and determine what the author means when he uses the term, because if the meaning doesn’t come from the author, Braxton is right, there is no meaning at all. In this case, I am pretty sure that Scott is not referring to the qualities of a smuggler, or a Yeomen, or a valet. So we can start by eliminating certain options from within our semantic range. Further, he references the word gentle, so it is likely that he is speaking of some positive qualities a man has. Perhaps the 2nd or 10th option for gentleman is closest – a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man.
And by the way… since Scott asked for suggestions, perhaps pursuing the 14th option for the meaning of gentleman would be worth aiming for… a man with an independent income who does not work for a living. That is the type of gentleman that I would like to be.
Possible limitations for the semantic range of the word gentleman. From Dictionary.com
1. a man regarded as having qualities of refinement associated with a good family
2. a man who is cultured, courteous, and well-educated
3. a polite name for a man
4. the personal servant of a gentleman (esp in the phrase gentleman’s gentleman)
5. (Brit) history: a man of gentle birth, who was entitled to bear arms, ranking above a yeoman in social position
6. (formerly) a euphemistic word for a: smuggler
7. a man of good family, breeding, or social position.
8. (used as a polite term) a man: Do you know that gentleman over there?
9. gentlemen, (used as a form of address): Gentlemen, please come this way.
10. a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man: He behaved like a true gentleman.
11. a male personal servant, esp. of a man of social position; valet.
12. a male attendant upon a king, queen, or other royal person, who is himself of high birth or rank.
13. a man of good social standing, as a noble or an armigerous commoner.
14. a man with an independent income who does not work for a living.
15. a male member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives: The chair recognizes the gentleman from Massachusetts.
16. History/Historical . a man who is above the rank of yeoman.