Perhaps the most obvious word here is gentlefolks, which until the nineteenth century appeared only and always in the plural. Shakespeare used it in the plural, as did Thackeray. Eventually, however, writers towards latter end of Victorian era began to use gentlefolk in the singular.
But it does seem a long word, doesn’t it? As a shorter version, the courageous might make fair use of the noun gentles, especially in the plural. It’s mostly just an “abbreviation” (as it were), of gentlefolks.
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene I:
Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show.
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know.
This beauteous lady Thisbe is certain.
Or at the finale, in Puck’s final address to the audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
The OED does note that gentle is rarely used in the singular, but describes this sense as
One who is of gentle birth or rank.
Nonetheless, saying a gentle rather than gentles in general is long gone. Even in olden days, simples were opposed to gentles, as in this OED citation:
- 1882 Mrs. Raven’s Tempt. III. 8
The simples are not bound to pick up what the gentles throw away.
It is now perceived as archaic, but could work for vocative uses in the right setting — especially if you wish to impart an air of formality or antiquity.
A few examples of using gentles this way, which might be a comic “vulgarism” for gentlefolks, given by the OED are:
- C. 1590 Greene Fr. Bacon x. 16
Now, courteous Gentles, if the Keepers girle Hath pleas’d the liking fancy of you both [etc.].
- 1591 Troub. Raigne K. John, To Gentlem. Rdrs. (1611) 70
Gentles, we left King John repleate with blisse.
- 1599 B. Jonson Ev. Man out of Hum. (1600) Prol.,
Gentles, all I can say for him is, you are welcome.
- 1638 Cowley Love’s Riddle v,
It’s no matter for that; farewell gentles.
- 1641 Marmion Antiq. ɪɪɪ. F 4 a,
Gentles I would entreat you a courtesie.