Down off our high horse

People don't generally make a big to-do about 238th anniversaries, but I'd like to make an exception. One of the highlights of my reading life this year has been a book about an event that took place 238 years ago this past Christmas: George Washington's crossing of the Delaware to take on the British in New Jersey, and thereby to change the course of the Revolutionary War.

The book, the aptly titled "Washington's Crossing," by David Hackett Fisch-er, taught me a lot about Washington and his world, but I'm mentioning it here because of Fischer's discussion of how "condescending" Washington was.

Come again?

OK, that's not quite how Fischer puts it, although Washington clearly was one of our less huggable presidents.

Fischer writes, "Washington had been taught to treat people of every rank with civility and 'condescension,' a word that has changed

its meaning in the modern era. In Washington's world, to condescend was to treat inferiors with decency and respect while maintaining a system of inequality."

The word has changed its meaning, because we've changed

our minds (our collective mind?) about the thing or quality or action it describes. Uncomfortable as we are today with the notions of social hierarchy, we are unlikely to be comfortable with terms used to describe ways of negotiating it smoothly.

But "condescend," we might say today, was the "progressive" position of the time, the classy way for a patrician to behave when he quite literally got down from his high horse to speak with hoi polloi at their own level. (There's a whole discussion about gentlemen on horseback contrasted with peons, literally those on foot. The Spanish word for "gentleman" is "caballero," literally a man on horseback.) Washington was an aristocrat for whom the choices, evidently, were arrogance and condescension. He chose condescension.

Conversely, when Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, got a bit bristly in a meeting with journalists a few weeks ago, the headline was, "Sun boss saddles up high horse." It was not written in admiration.

"Patronizing" has a similarly mixed background. The noun "patron" derives ultimately from the Latin word "pater," father, and is connected to ideas of "defender," "protector," and even "patron saint." (Think angels with flaming swords.)

But the verb "patronize," which can mean quite simply "to be a regular customer of" a business or merchant, has a more negative connotation as well: "to be kind or helpful to, but in a haughty or snobbish way, as if dealing with an inferior," as Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, puts it.

Once you get your head around "haughty kindness" and "snobbishly helpful," you can consider the adjective "patronizing," which is always a put-down: "I can't stand your patronizing attitude every time I try to improve myself."

Residents of a town are often encouraged to "patronize local merchants," who presumably welcome the business. The existence of such a campaign is often a sign that said merchants are, or are felt to be, in some kind of trouble, however.

Another term related to "pater" is "paternalistic," which describes a management style that has known ups and downs over the years. I suspect there was a time - through the middle of the last century - when "paternalistic" described the enlightened approach, with guaranteed pensions and gold watches, but also rules to "protect" workers, especially women and minorities. Many companies today may speak of themselves as "a family," but employees are not happy to be treated as "children."

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