General English

Origin & History of “gentle”

Expressions like ‘of gentle birth’, and related forms such as gentility (14th c.) and gentleman (13th c.) point up the original link between gentle and ‘family, stock, birth’. The word comes via Old French gentil from Latin gentīlis, a derivative of gēns ‘family, stock’, which in turn goes back to the Indo-European base *gen- ‘produce’ (source of English gene, generate, genitive, etc). To begin with it meant ‘of the same family’, but by post-classical times it had shifted to ‘of good family’, the sense in which English originally acquired it. Like the closely related generous, it then moved on semantically from ‘well-born’ to ‘having a noble character, generous, courteous’, but interestingly this sense has virtually died out in English (except in such fixed phrases as gentle knight and gentle reader), having been replaced since the 16th century by ‘mild, tender’.

French gentil was reborrowed into English in the 16th century as genteel, in which again connotations of good breeding figure highly. Attempts at a French accent resulted ultimately in jaunty (17th c.), which originally meant ‘well-bred’ or ‘elegant’.

The other English descendant of Latin gentīlis is the directly borrowed gentile (14th c.), whose application to ‘non-Jewish people’ comes from its use in the Vulgate, the Latin version of the bible.