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Gentle He Isn't

Rosie Right

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Do you know a gentleman when you see one? Last year, a girl was brutally attacked by a stranger on the streets of New York. This man hit her so hard on the head with a brick that she has been left with severe brain damage. In a Nov. 15 news story, a witness who saw a newspaper picture of the accused was quoted as telling his wife: "Hon, that's the gentleman I saw that day running down the street." At the risk of being called a snob, Rosie admits she was startled by the use of the word gentleman for such a violent person. And she has been thrown by similar usage in other remarks made on television and to the press. She consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and found that gentleman has a number of different definitions, the first of which reads: "A man of gentle birth, or having the same heraldic status as those of gentle birth; properly one who is entitled to bear arms." Only by a wild stretch of the imagination could one suppose that the brick attacker would fit this definition. Definition No. 3 reads: "A man in whom gentle birth is accompanied by appropriate qualities and behaviour; hence, in general, a man of chivalrous instincts and fine feelings." This is the definition Rosie learned in her long-ago youth. But through the years, gentleman has morphed in meaning. Now "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette" says " 'lady' and 'gentleman' are basically old-fashioned words, once widely used when referring to upper-class men and women." Still, the earlier connotation lingers. The second definition in Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, tells us a gentleman is " a courteous, gracious man with a strong sense of honor." It seems to Rosie that it probably is acceptable to call someone a man when one could just as easily use gentleman, but it is silly and inappropriate to use the word gentleman when the behavior of the person involved is violent, dishonest or criminal. Judith Martin, in her 1982 book "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior," took this feeling a step further and included in her discussion of wine the admission that "she is getting dangerously close to believing that anyone demonstrating an excessive interest in his automobile, sound-reproducing equipment, or wine is not a gentleman." That's a bit much, but Rosie hopes that people will reserve gentleman for special occasions and for special people. Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220), fax (358-1079) or e-mail rmail@richmond.infi.net.

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