Saturday, April 17, 2010

In Defense of the Gentleman

     For years I have been noticing a misuse of the word gentleman, particularly by police department personnel describing crimes and criminals to the news media.  Here is a typical example of what one such spokesman might say in an interview for the local television news:
"The gentleman climbed onto the roof of the building and proceeded to climb down the chimney to try to gain entry.  He got stuck about half way down.  The gentleman proceeded to yell obscenities as loud as he could until passersby heard him and called 911.  After we rescued him we found illegal drugs in his possession.  The gentleman is being booked for possession, drunk and disorderly, attempted breaking and entering, and he has warrants for several prior offenses."
     Now I don't think behavior of this type warrants the use of the term gentleman.  When I think of a gentleman, I picture a well dressed man having dinner in a fine restaurant with his matronly, jewel-bedecked wife. His top hat and evening gloves have been set aside by the subservient wait staff; his monocle glints with the light of the crystal chandelier.  His ivory-handled walking stick leans in the corner behind him; his spats and high-necked collar bespeak class and sophistication.  After dinner, he and his wife stroll to the theater as he smokes his cigar.  She is wearing a sable coat and he a cashmere topcoat to keep out the evening chill.
      Is this really the type of person who would strip down to his acid-washed jeans and shimmy down a chimney with a pocket full of meth and liquor on his breath?  Would he so quickly cast aside his social standing and his prestige in the business world to boost a few car stereos at 3AM?  Are we to believe that upon leaving the theater he made an excuse to his wife, sent her home in a hansom cab and went across town to wallow in an underworld of petty crime and criminal mischief, like a cut-rate Mr Hyde?  No, I think we can safely assume that our gentleman would do no such thing.  He is no reverse Santa Claus.  He didn't build his empire by going down chimneys and stealing other people's property.
     But, just as sure I am that the man inside the chimney is not wearing a shirt, I am equally sure that the next police spokesman I see on TV will refer to him as a gentleman.  They do it all the time. Just watch the news and pay attention to the first police spokesman you hear describing the latest criminal incident.  He will invariably mischaracterize the culprit as a gentleman.   It bothers me because it not just imprecise, but incorrect.  The correct term in the case above would be a word like individual or perpetrator, or suspect or fellow, or guy or dirtbag, sleazeball, dim bulb, criminal, lowlife, genius, ignoramus, or any of 20 other words.  The shirtless guy stuck in the chimney is anything in the world but a gentleman.
      Any time a police spokesman refers to a perpetrator as a gentleman, he should have to personally apologize to all the esteemed gentlemen in cashmere overcoats and top hats who have earned the appellation of gentleman by their hard work, gracious bearing, generosity, and clean, white spats.


InTheOubliette said...

Incredibly well stated, oh Fishbrickian genius. Ditto "gentlemen's clubs."

Laura said...

There are times when women are referred to as "ladies" when they are anything but a lady.

Neil said...

I think the author of this piece has obviously never had a mullet.