As a medical transcriptionist and a lover of the nuances of language, I have been disconcerted recently over what I perceive to be the misuse of the word “gentleman.” Health providers are sometimes challenged when they try to describe patients. Usually it’s straight and to the point: “A 53-year-old female (or woman).” “A 42-year-old male (or man).” Sometimes they reference age with an adjective: “An 83-year-old elderly man.” “A 14-year-old adolescent female.” Often it is race: “A 30-year-old white male.” “A 72-year-old Hispanic female.” These are objective descriptions that anyone could agree with.
The challenge comes with abusive, drunk, stoned patients - the “bums,” the “losers,” as I have heard them called (it even pains me to type that). The provider certainly doesn’t want to come across as judgmental, and he/she, of course, cannot give his/her true opinion of the patient’s state. Sometimes the patient is just referred to as “unfortunate,” a catch-all umbrella word which covers cancer patients as well as alcoholics, and on that we can all readily agree. However, I have noticed a trend in these instances - and that is to call them “gentlemen.” “This 44-year-old gentleman” turns out to be an alcoholic who has been admitted umpteen times in the last year for detox, who gets sent home, set up with outpatient counseling, never goes, starts drinking, and comes back again for another week’s admission for detox. In an effort to avoid insulting these patients, the providers are making extraordinary attempts to be ridiculously complimentary. I don’t want to sound judgmental here, as I myself have lived with an alcoholic for many years and I understand the torture this disease inflicts. That patient would be unfortunate indeed, but I would not confer the title of “gentleman” on him.
The first definition of gentleman is “a chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man.” Unlike the stereotypical British gentleman with a pearl-handled walking stick, impeccable suit, hat, and gloves, the above definition of gentleman doesn’t mention wardrobe or outward appearance. It talks about attitude and character.
If I think back on my 53 years of life, I can name several men I have known that I would unhesitatingly call gentlemen. It’s not a distinction I would confer upon just anyone. My grandfather’s friend, Mr. Gordon, was a gentleman. He not only had the attitude and character, but the suit to go with it. He was not related to us, but he lent his presence to many a family holiday celebration. My high school French teacher, Mr. Knight, has always been a gentleman. My high school friend Mark Williamson was a gentleman. My cousin Mike McDonald was a gentleman. My father, Ensley Tiffin, was a gentleman. And the list goes on.
Some of these men were dressed to the nines; some were more casual. But gentlemen they will always be.
Now the word “lady” is different. Although its first definition is “a woman (used as a polite or old-fashioned form of reference),” its second definition is “an informal, often brusque, form of address to a woman.”
I was called a lady once. I was taking my very first plane flight, had just made a will for the first time, had just bought a house in another state, and had just turned 40. Talk about a tumultuous year! Anyway, I was scared to death to be in that plane. The whole trip, even though the flight was smooth in beautiful weather, was a nightmare for me. Apparently it was also a nightmare for the man in front of me. As I sobbed, tried to sing opera under my breath, vocally displayed my angst - anything and everything to try to distract myself - the man in front of me finally turned around, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Lady - if you see me break this window and jump out and run, then you can get worried. Until then, just SHUT UP!” (I think he was using the second definition.)
It’s too bad the word “gentlewoman” has become archaic. I love the sound of that word, and I think that would be the perfect way to describe some ladies I have known. Mrs. Underwood was one. My friend Audrey May is another. My mother, of course, is one of the most “gentle-women” I have known. Again, too many to name here.
As there seems to be a shortage of common civility, kindness, and respect in society these days, it pleases me to think back on all the true ladies and gentlemen I have met. Their character will never go out of style, and I am honored to have been a part of their lives.
I still think about that poor man on the plane. Well, at least he called me a lady!