Literature of the English Country House: The many meanings of 'polite' in the 18th century

Co-lead educator Professor Susan Fitzmaurice discusses what it meant to be ‘polite’ in the 18th century.

Susan discussing the issue of ‘politeness’ at Chatsworth House.
Susan discussing the issue of ‘politeness’ at Chatsworth House.

‘Politeness’ and ‘polite society’ are critical components of 18th century vocabulary. At first glance, they seem quite straightforward to interpret and apply to the social landscape of the period. However, as soon as we examine the terrain more closely, we see that they resist easy classification.

Early 18th century English understandings of politeness have their roots in earlier notions of gentility, courtesy and civility, notions adopted from European culture and literature. More importantly, early 18th century English people understood ‘politeness’ in multiple ways, depending upon the circumstances in which it was used and who used it.

As a linguist, I am interested in the phenomenon of polysemy, that is, the ability of a single word to command multiple meanings at the same time. Indeed, I am even more interested in the fact that some meanings of a word can be more immediately available or prominent for one person than for another in the same period.

What this means is that one person, say, Joseph Addison, might interpret ‘polite’ conversation between gentlemen of equal standing and education positively, to entail easy, cooperative, honest and sociable chat, mutually respectful and reciprocal.

However, another, say, Jonathan Swift, might construe ‘polite’ conversation rather negatively, to entail banter full of in-group slang, obscure vocabulary and risqué humour as conducted among young people who consider themselves at the height of fashion in the city.

So for Swift, what he calls ‘polite’ is actually the opposite of what Addison calls ‘polite’. Yet another person, say, William Congreve (in his play, The Way of the World), might interpret polite conversation to entail urbane, witty and sophisticated talk between men and women, a style and manner of conversation that would exclude country squires and homely middle-aged ladies unfamiliar with city trends. So all these different social, intellectual and class connotations of ‘polite’ and ‘politeness’ co-exist in the same milieu.

The challenge, of course, is to see which connotations come to the fore as we explore the contexts in which the terms are used. Clues are in the settings, genres, and styles of the texts. If you are interested in this linguist’s particular take on changing meanings of politeness in the 18th century, read this essay.

Written by Susan Fitzmaurice, on 15 July 2015.

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