Gentlemen: their uses and abuses

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides an occasion for our columnist to check in on how an upmarket term for 'man' is faring in the language.

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The arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. after someone spotted him purportedly trying to "break in" to his own home has been analyzed from many different angles.

But here's another one you may not have thought about, dear reader: the place of gentlemen in the language of policing. A recent issue of The New Yorker quoted from the 911 call that triggered the incident. (Transcripts of 911 calls quoted in The New Yorker! Yes, I know. What would Mr. Shawn say?) Here's what caught my eye, though: The caller reported "two gentlemen trying to get in a house."

The principle of the presumption of innocence is the bedrock of our justice system. That needs to be stressed without irony or nuance. But if the two men, subsequently revealed to be Professor Gates and the driver bringing him home from the airport after a trip abroad, had been doing what the caller thought they might be doing (and thought it seriously enough to call the police), they weren't gentlemen at all.

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The simple common noun "man" would have served just as well, and would have done no damage to the presumption of innocence. If gentleman keeps getting dragged into dubious situations, it may lose its good name.

The New Yorker piece prompted a quick search of Google News to see where gentleman shows up in the media nowadays. The late Walter Cronkite and Kenneth Bacon, one a newsman and the other a public official, were both described in obituaries and other tributes as "gentlemen." This is how it should be. So was the golfer Tom Watson, still very much with us, whose graceful losing of the British Open will be remembered as one of the truly winning moments of sports this summer.

But gentleman also showed up in a news story about an elderly man who had apparently terrorized his wife and then shot himself. The police "found the gentleman deceased" in a vehicle in his garage. This, to be fair, was a direct quote from a police official. It wasn't the news outlet's own reporter's words. But another major news organization, in one of its blogs, did describe as a "gentleman" a man who showed up at a healthcare town meeting "packing heat." A police officer positioned himself near said "gentleman" to keep an eye on him.

The phony genteel "gentleman" is surely better than "the perp" or "the killer" or other terms we don't want to appear in this space. The efforts that law enforcement and other public officials make to avoid prejudging criminal suspects and other men and women "of interest" to them are important and worthwhile.

And let's not forget how people called upon to speak publicly in awkward situations need phrases like "at this point in time." Those extra syllables give them split seconds in which to figure out how to put together the words that really matter. That may be why "individual" is helpful. It's five syllables of verbal gray-beige. For a sheriff's deputy suddenly needing to brief reporters on a swiftly moving crime investigation, there are worse words to use than individual, or even gentleman.

But if gentleman picks up a connotation of "man in trouble" or "man under suspicion," it will be less available to describe Cronkite, Bacon, Watson, or Gates.

In which case someone might have to say, "He's no gentleman, Officer; he's a professor."

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