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I've been watching a great deal many British period films lately, and having done so has made me grow acutely aware to the nuance of the word gentleman. Once upon a time, a gentleman wasn't just some ordinary man off the street, as we might likely apply the word to nowadays, oh no; the gentlemen I watch typically

  • "go out to the country" to one of their palatial country homes
  • have an "allowance" from some vast checkbook, and spend precious little time working
  • have many servants to dote upon them and many sashes about their houses to summon those servants
  • typically walk about in exquisitely manicured gardens and parks
  • always have a "club" to relax in, and "society" dinners to attend to

From what I can tell, a gentleman isn't necessarily of aristocracy, or nobility; the primary characteristic of them all is that one needs to keep up the appearance of not having to work, even if one does. And, what I've also noticed is that in the many films I've watched, up to the Second World War period, this distinction of gentleman is always well observed by all characters present.

So, if you'll excuse my long-winded digressions, I have a simple question: Is this usage still current anywhere in British English? Are there certain groups of people who still observe that not everyone is a gentleman, and that it requires a particular lifestyle?

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I prefer the British whore's definition of 'gentleman' when she was testifying at trial. QC: And what was your impression of the 'customer's demeanor? BW:'e behaved very well. I could tell 'e was a gentleman'. QC: And how did you know that he was a gentleman? BW: Well, when 'e was gettin' dressed to leave 'e put 'is socks on before 'is trousers. –  user3847 Jun 12 at 21:58

4 Answers 4

In the past a gentleman might have been expected to be independently wealthy, or have pretended to be so, but he would never have been a gentleman without being of the right class. This meant education, accent, etiquette, vocabulary, parentage (anything I've missed?).

Outside of referring to these gentlemen of past times, no one in the UK now would think a gentleman has to be independently wealthy. I think most would go with Hexagon Tiling's example, polite, possibly speaking with received pronunciation and possibly smartly dressed.

However, a small group of men who went to certain public schools definitely do think of themselves as gentleman, distinct from the oiks who went to comprehensives. I know this because I'm friends with some of them. In my view the modern British workplace either burnishes their elitism (financial centers, the media) or erases it away (any where else).

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I think a smartly dressed man with a broad accent would be viewed as more genteel than one who spoke with RP but looked like a ragamuffin. –  Nicholas Jul 29 '13 at 18:15

You might occasionally hear someone say of someone they admire for their manners and courtesy "He's a real gent". Other than that - no.

The concept of a gentleman goes back to Chaucer and earlier. You'll have to wait for the film :-)

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My suspicion is that the final nail was put into the coffin of the concept you mention by Oscar Wilde, who defined a gentleman as being simply a fellow who is “never unintentionally rude”.

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I think the concept of gentleman is alive and well in business and diplomatic circles. If you consider gentleman in the context of courtier, you'll realize that these social constructs (i.e. business and diplomatic circles) provide the perfect stage for his - the gentleman's - performances. The king has been replaced by the CEO, that is all.

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A gentleman doesn't discuss commerce. What you're describing is the end of the gentleman as described in the question. –  Jon Hanna Jun 12 at 22:01

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