Gentle - genteel - gentile

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Don't confuse these adjectives gentle, genteel and gentile (both gentle and gentile may also be used substantively). All are derived from the Latin gens, possessive gentis, 'a clan', 'a family' or 'a tribe': a group related by supposed blood ties (or adoption) and shared supposed origins and beliefs and forming a political bloc of influence in the state. The history of these and related words is tangled, and may interest some users of AWE.

  • Gentle (pronounced 'JEN-t'l', IPA: /ˈdʒɛn təl/) nowadays means predominantly 'kind and tender', 'soft in the touch, like a mother with a baby' and 'not harsh or rough'. (The associated abstract noun is gentleness.) This is expanded to the voice and general manner of behaviour. This meaning arose from the root through various intermediate stages:
    • Gentle originally meant 'belonging to a family [gens]' - in the days when the only families of which notice was taken were those of the land-owning, and therefore rich and powerful, class. (The abstract noun is gentility.) This is the element in the terms 'gentleman' and (less common in the twenty-first century, which uses 'lady') 'gentlewoman'. In the early modern period, gentlefolk were distinguished from the nobility, or aristocracy, above them in the social scale, and the 'common people' below them.
      • The collective noun gentry was used for this class in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Gentry has also been used jocularly as a general collective in such phrases as 'the sporting gentry' to mean the crowd of spectators at horse-races, boxing matches and so on, and 'the pick-pocketing gentry', who have no claim to be considered 'well-born'.)
        • From the desire of aspiring and socially mobile people to 'improve' areas in which money allows them to replace poorer residents comes the process of gentrification, with the associated verb 'to gentrify', which OED defines as "To renovate or convert (housing, esp. in an inner-city area) so that it conforms to middle-class taste; to render (an area) middle-class."
    • From the social distinction implicit in the idea of 'the class immediately below the aristocracy' came the meaning that gentle described 'behaviour appropriate to a member of the gentry'. While this did not always carry the connotation of the predominant current meaning, 'tender, kind' (a 'gentle knight' might be one who carried himself boldly in battle, slaughtering many poorly armoured foot-soldiers), as warfare became a less common occupation for the landed classes it did come to mean "Having the character appropriate to one of good birth; noble, generous, courteous" (OED, 1898 gentle 3 a.). Nowadays the meaning of gentle is more about behaviour than social class.
      • Various figurative meanings derive from the idea of 'not violent', 'not strenuous': a breeze may be gentle, as opposed to a (violent) gale or storm; a gentle slope is one that may be climbed by anyone; a horsewoman, or fly fisherman, may have gentle hands, i.e. not likely to interrupt the smooth and unfrightening control of the animal, or rod; a cook may employ gentle, or in more modern terminology low, heat; small rivers in flat areas are gentle streams; etc, etc.
  • Three oddities may be noticed in the substantive uses of gentle .
    • In early modern drama, the plural gentles was often used to address an audience, as when the Prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V says "But pardon, gentles all" l. 8).
    • In the days of falconry, a female peregrine falcon was known as a falcon-gentle. Here gentle conveys 'well-bred' ('of good family'), 'pedigree', as the peregrine was regarded as a princely hawk. The male was a tercel-gentle (often written 'tassel[l]-gentle' before the standardization of spelling): tercel is derived from Latin tertius ('a third'), as the male is around a third smaller in weight than the female. An alternative explanation traces it back to the belief that only one in every three eggs hatched into a male.
    • Coarse fishermen call the maggots that are used for bait gentles.
  • Genteel was a re-adoption from the French gentil, which meant the same as 'gentle', but to English ears seems to be accented on the second syllable. Hence the English word is now pronounced 'jen-TEEL', IPA: /dʒɛn ˈtiːl/. The sense of this word developed from 'belonging to the gentry' and "Appropriate to persons of quality" - this is the sense in which Jane Austen used it - (OED, 1898), which adds "Now chiefly with sarcastic implication." It is now used snobbishly among some to mean 'pretending to adopt the manners of the upper classes [but usually failing to do so convincingly]'.
      • Jaunty, oddly enough, is a third adaptation from the French, aping the French pronunciation (/ʒɔ̃ ˈtiː/) rather more closely ; it now means 'brisk', 'easy and sprightly', having moved through well-bred', '[of the] gentle [class]' and 'stylish', 'smart'. (It may have been influenced by the verb 'to jaunt', 'to make a horse prance', and later 'to make a short pleasure trip '. (There was a horse-drawn carreiage called a jaunting-car which held around four passengers facing each other, or sometimesx back-to-back, for excursions.)
  • Gentile (pronounced 'JEN-tile', IPA: /ˈdʒɛn taɪl/, is the term used in English translations of the Old Testament for the Hebrew גוי ('goy') and נכרי ('nokhri'), '[a person] outside the Jewish faith', "Of or pertaining to any or all of the nations other than the Jewish" (OED. This meaning has been transferred into other 'foreign' conditions: Mormons use it to label non-Mormons, and it used to be used as a term for 'pagan', 'heathen', or, more broadly, 'non-Christian'.
    • There are some rare uses of gentile, here pronounced with the same final syllable as 'until' (IPA: /ˈdʒɛn tɪl/) in classical studies: 'belonging to a nation or tribe'; in grammar, 'indicating the place of' (the same as gentilic, for which AWE prefers ethnonym); and 'belonging to a particular gens.

You may also like to see AWE's note on gentilic - an obsolete technical term in linguistics for which AWE prefers ethnonym