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Saturday, June 06, 2020

The Evolution of Language

I learned something new today. On Bushrod Washington's memorial at Mount Vernon, the following is inscribed:

"Firm in every honorable purpose and pursuit. Yet gentle, humane, and condescending."

Condescending? What the .  . .? So it turns out that condescending was meant as a compliment back then. Basically, it meant "talking to people of lower social rank as if they were equals." Jane Austen, apparently, used the word this way in one of her novels. The assumption, of course, was that the person being condescending really was superior and was being modest or affable in talking to say, the servants. Interesting to see how words can change their meaning over time, in this case dramatically. 

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on June 6, 2020 at 09:58 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: best gk gloves | Jun 15, 2020 10:28:38 AM

Not exactly the same but a similar type of confusion arises with "sanction," which both means to authorize and to punish some particular activity.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 10, 2020 5:43:10 AM

I think it's too bad that the old meaning was lost. Obviously, we're all "equals" morally, politically, etc. But, some people who, say, know a ton about X are better able than others are to invite people who do not know as much about X into enjoyable and (at least for the latter) productive conversation, without false humility or patronization. A fine line to walk! In a way, the old way captured something that, I assume, we think is a good thing in a teacher, no?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 8, 2020 4:59:11 PM

It still means "talking to someone AS IF they were equals", but now that we believe we all ARE equals, it's an insult because we assume you think you're more-than-equal and only pretending to be equal.

Now you should talk to people AS equals (act authentically), because we ARE equal--morally, obviously we haven't achieved equality before the police/law or equality of opportunity/outcome yet . . .

Posted by: alessercondescension | Jun 7, 2020 10:11:43 AM

That's why law should still be written in and practiced in Latin.

Dead language; no evolution.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jun 7, 2020 6:25:12 AM

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