The term gentleman (from Latin gentilis, belonging to a race or gens, and man, cognate with the French word gentilhomme, the Spanish Caballero, the Italian gentil uomo or gentiluomo and the Portuguese gentil-homem), in its original and strict signification, denoted a man of the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire and above a yeoman.

By definition, this category included the younger sons of the younger sons of peers and the younger sons of baronets (after this honour's institution in 1611), knights, and esquires in perpetual succession, and thus the term captures the common denominator of gentility (and often armigerousness) shared by both constituents of the English aristocracy: the peerage and the gentry. In this sense, the word equates with the French gentilhomme ("nobleman"), which latter term has been, in Great Britain, long confined to the peerage; Maurice Keen points to the category of "gentlemen" in this context as thus constituting "the nearest contemporary English equivalent of the noblesse of France" (Origins of the English Gentleman, 2002, p. 9). The notion of "gentlemen" as encapsulating the members of the hereditary ruling class was what the rebels under John Ball in the 14th century meant when they repeated:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

John Selden, in Titles of Honour (1614), discussing the title gentleman, likewise speaks of "our English use of it" as "convertible with nobilis" (an ambiguous word, noble meaning elevated either by rank or by personal qualities) and describes in connection with it the forms of ennobling in various European countries.

By social courtesy the designation came to include any well-educated man of good family and distinction, analogous to the Latin generosus (its usual translation in English-Latin documents, although nobilis is found throughout pre-Reformation papal correspondence). To a degree, gentleman came to signify a man with an income derived from property, a legacy or some other source, and was thus independently wealthy and did not need to work. The term was particularly used of those who could not claim any other title or even the rank of esquire. Widening further, it became a politeness for all men, as in the phrase Ladies and Gentlemen,... and this was then used (often with the abbreviation Gents) to indicate where men could find a lavatory without the need to indicate precisely what was being described.

In modern speech, the term is usually democratised so as to include any man of good, courteous conduct, or even to all men (as in indications of gender-separated facilities, or as a sign of the speaker's own courtesy when addressing others).

Read more about Gentleman:  Gentleman By Conduct, Landed Gentry, Formal Court Titles, Modern Usage

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Famous quotes containing the word gentleman:

    Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.
    Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929)

    If the aristocrat is only valid in fashionable circles, and not with truckmen, he will never be a leader in fashion; and if the man of the people cannot speak on equal terms with the gentleman, so that the gentleman shall perceive that he is already really of his own order, he is not to be feared.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)

    The gentleman is learned, and a most rare speaker.
    William Shakespeare (1564–1616)