Language is not just a tool of communication and thoughts. It’s also a record of prevalent attitudes of society. Recently, after years of deliberation, I picked up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The decision seems vindicated, about three fourths into the book, but that’s a different subject than what I had in mind while starting this post (not blog — as rightly condescended (sic) by Atul in his blog-post Mind the gap). The subject is the word condescending itself.
Back to Pride and Prejudice — one of Ms. Austen’s character Mr. Collins repeatedly compliments another character, one Lady Catherine De Bourgh for her “affability and condescension”. Not many modern speakers of English, will use these two words in the same sentence, except when trying to be ironic, maybe. And yet, Ms. Austen (actually just her character) seems to have been using the word condescend in borderline — if not completely — positive sense. So I decided to go after the other or older meanings of the word.
After all, I’m sure Jane Austen is no Humpty Dumpty saying ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’
So here is its etymology from: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/condescend#English
From Middle English condescenden, from Old French condescendre, from Late Latin condescendere (“to let one’s self down, stoop, condescend”), from Latin com-(“together”) + descendere (“to come down”); see descend.
There is one clue, alright. For you really have to believe that some people are above others for them to descend down to their level — for if the former is believed, then the latter would be indeed a noble, and laudable act! So in post-liberal world (yes, the irony is intended, but we’d let it go at that) it’s no wonder that the word has lost its positive connotation. And it’s equally less surprising that in the 19th Century’s class conscious English society, it had a positive connotation indeed.
And while I was looking for these things, I hit upon another post which pretty much talks of the same thing: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/05/lady-catherines-condescension.html. Funny thing is, the author says “By its very nature, condescension now implies that the recipient is inferior and is being patronized” — probably not realizing that patronize might well have gone through same fate!
Then again, another thing that strikes me is that Ms. Austen has only Mr. Collins use the word at all, and for a character who is shown to be vein, patronizing and overbearing, and not really respected much by the central character, with whom, we can safely assume, lie the author’s sympathies and sensibilities. So I guess even in early nineteenth society the word and the attitudes had started losing their sheen? I don’t know if Ms. Austen was ahead of her time, or behind, or with the times, but it looks like for a Victorian novel, the book has many modern ethos, even borderline feminist themes. So all in all, usage of one word cannot be made a complete guide to times. What it can do, is to get you thinking about them. That’s half the battle won, right?