define: need a word for …

September 10, 2008  |  essays

Now that I’m on the subject of definitions, I have a request. I need a word for something.

Sometimes the English language fails us; we really don’t have enough words for the precision of things. (For example, I’d love to differentiate between the “I’m sorry” that means empathy vs the “I’m sorry” that is an apology, especially since those two things are widely different and it makes it difficult to communite your true intention when language falls short. But that’s a sidenote.)

I’ve been thinking about chivalry lately – which is not rare – and in a few discussions recently I’ve been kicking around the idea of someone who receives chivalry, and how that too is a skill.

Some women don’t much care for chivalry, and some do; those who do have a different kind of interaction with it, an appreciation and understanding that definitely alters the dynamic of the exchange. It’s actually kind of complicated to allow someone to pull out your chair, take your coat or help it on, to take their hand or arm or elbow. Those are skills, too: how to receive chivalry.

I think we need a word for this. It has been suggested to me that perhaps we can use the same word – as in, “that femme is chivalrous, she knows how to accept chivalry from me” – but that doesn’t quite convey what I’m trying to say. I keep thinking of other forms of nouns for two people in a give/take relationship – gifter/giftee, inviter/invitee – but that doesn’t quite make sense with the structure of the word “chivalrous” and “chivalry.” Makes me wish I knew more about the origins and structure of language.

Got ideas?

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31 Comments


  1. I'd think something like "gracious" would suffice.

  2. Sinclair, what about using the word 'gracious'? I know it's kind of out of fashion, reminiscent of Southern belles as it is, but it means both extending courtesy with charm and sincerity and the ability to receive courtesy and chivalry smoothly, with appreciation and, well, grace. I've always used it for someone who receives something well, be it a compliment, a gift, or a door opened for her (which can be likened to both of the above).

    Also, it is a pretty word to say, and I think a femme would appreciate and understand that usage of it.

  3. I hear you about the "I'm sorry" thing. And I think I understand what you mean, but…

    To me, the term "chivalry" is too loaded – it implies a history of sexism, women needing extra care, the big strong man protecting her. Ugh. I'm an independent, ornery sort of femme, I guess.

    Now courtesy, respect and thoughtfulness – hell yeah! I love it if someone opens the door for me – regardless of gender. And I try to do the same for others – regardless of gender. If it's for a partner, again, it's about expressing care, respect and love – on both sides.

    I also think when masculine-identified queers or guys specifically think of chivalry as only for women/feminine-identified queers, that it feels forced and patronizing. I'm thinking of a date I had once where the butch was so concerned about ALWAYS getting the door and walking on the outside of the street that it ended up being awkward and annoying. Part of courtesy/respect is being thoughtful and aware of other people's boundaries and comforts and being able to adjust accordingly…

    According to Merriam-Webster:

    "gallant and chivalrous imply courteous attentiveness especially to women. gallant suggests spirited and dashing behavior and ornate expressions of courtesy. chivalrous suggests high-minded and self-sacrificing behavior."

    So for new language, how about courteous? Gracious?

    And if you think I completely have the wrong idea about "chivalry", especially in a butch-femme context or if you have insights you'd want to share, I'm all ears…

  4. Ooh, too slow, Tina got there ahead of me. Damn!

  5. I don't think I made this clear enough. Y'all are missing my point. I'm not looking for a new word for chivalry, I'm looking for a word for the person who is on the receiving end of chivalry, because that too is a skill.

    I've written about some of my feelings on chivalry here – chivalry as deeply feminist, romance vs chivalry, and the entire chivalry tag. Clearly I should write a bunch more on this, I keep forgetting how controversial this subject is!

  6. I get it, you're looking for the equivalent of chivalr-ee (like, as the recipient of the attentions of the chivalr-er).

    to me, chivalry is the art of paying attention to the way someone is moving through the world, and attempting to aid that movement, to allow it grace. it takes a great deal of sensitivity and appreciation, and in my experience few people are inclined or able to do it well.

    someone who understands the sensitivity chivalry takes, and can be sensitive in return to the effort and intention being put forth… that's what we're talking about here. someone who creates a space for this attention and cultivates it, utilizes it, makes it work for them.

    so now, the word… I'll put my thinking cap on.

  7. hehe, chivalree!

    so far, i'm agreeing with gracious, although i understand it's probably a bit less specific than you'd like.

    the origin doesn't seem very helpful in this case. chivalry comes from chevalier, french for horseman, literally, though in meaning more like knight.

  8. courtly works for me..

    [Oh I like that one! "That girl is courtly." "Yeah, the date was great, she was very courtly and it was fun …" I like how it's related to 'courting' too, as in I was courting her. It does sound old-fashioned, but then again everybody says "chivalry" sounds old-fashioned too, so I think it could be dusted off + reclaimed. This is my top runner so far, let's see if it sticks. – ss]

  9. Since "chivalry" is derived from the French word cheval, a word in itself derived from the Latin, and is of the same origin therefore as our more modern words cavalier and cavalry. The word knight is derived from the Saxon for a servant, and gradually became applied to the immediate attendants of a feudal lord. Knights protected widows, orphans and damsels in distress. The the word "damsel" is derived from the French demoiselle meaning "young lady" so to me, a person who is a habitual receiver of chivalry could be a "demoiselle". I love french words, they are so romantic. The word demoiselle, although feminine in origin does not necessarily have to refer to a woman, just to a person who is a recipient of chivalrous behaviors.

    [Ooh I like that! Thanks for the note. – ss]

  10. OK, so:

    -chivalrous (giver)/gracious (receiver)

    works.

    That then gives us:

    -chivalry/gracery (Hee. Like grocery.)

    -chivalrer (muse said it, not me)/ gracer (which actually sort of works. As in, the one who graces you with her attention, her presence, her willingness to receive your chivalry.)

    [Oh, that's well put, thank you! Perhaps I was misreading other comments. Since "gracious" has such a strong + common other meaning, though, would it be clear enough? It would sound like, "she was very gracious," "the date was fun, my chivalry was met with so much graciousness," and "I like the ways she's gracious…" hmmmm. – ss ]

  11. “that femme is chivalrous, she knows how to accept chivalry from me” – but that doesn’t quite convey what I’m trying to say

    Yeah. It also rather conveys that chivalry in incompatible with feminine gender — that what it means for a femme to be chivalrous is to accept others' chivalry, rather than being chivalrous in her own right. I know that lots of folks connect their chivalry with their masculinity, and of course there is a historical precedent for that, but there's no more reason to gender essentialize chivalry than anything else that individuals connect to their gender. For example, some feminine people connect being nurturing with femininity, and like to nurture their partners, sometimes specifically their masculine partners — but it would be truly bizarre to say that for a masculine person to be "nurturing" means the ze is being nurtured by someone else. It would imply that masculine people can't actually be nurturing. And it's just weird to have the same word mean something different depending on the gender of the person it's describing — there's absolutely no precedent for that, right?

    All of which is beside the point, I know. The sentence just jumped out at me and this point hasn't been made that I can see.

    [ RIGHT – good point! To say a femme "is chivalrous" meaning she accepts chivalry changes the usage of the verb so it means two different things depending on who it is being applied to. It states that she isn't the actor of chivalry, she's being acted upon. Which is why we need another word for the receiving of chivalry. (That is what you're saying, right?) Great example of nurturing, too. And yeah, I don't think there are other terms that work that way, I'd be curious to know … verbs that change meaning depending on usage? Hmm. I like your phrasing of "to gender essentialize" – I definitely don't want to do that, in this topic or in general. Plus I know at least a few femmes for whom chivalry is deeply part of their gender identity. – ss]

  12. I think the best term for this is simply kindness

  13. Yes, that's exactly what I am saying, though I don't have any suggestions for a new word.

    : )

  14. Gracious seems to imply that she doesn't want the attention, almost. I like obliging, but that carries the same connotation.

    What about decorous? It's fitting with chivalrous, being a word normally outside of colloquial speech, and it just works so well.

    [Good point; "gracious" does sound like it's something one kind of does out of obligation (same with obliging), as opposed to something that one does – or is – actively. Decorous, I like that. I may have to gather all the suggestions and have a poll. – ss]

  15. I love where Renee went. I'm at home with my big books, so I would add only this. The last Oxford definition of chivalry, and not the one SInclair is speaking of, also a noun, is "gallant gentleman." The description addresses the feminine in its mention of a joint phrase, "the noble chivalry and the lady fair." Once you shake Eliza Doolittle from your head, it's kind of lovely.

  16. I don't think "gracious" conotates obligation or that she didn't want it, not at all. So far I think gracious seems to be the word to use.

    Really though, if you go about making up a word, you'll just have to explain yourself everytime, and around time #47, you must just roll your eyes and say "forget it", lol.

    I agree with the I'm Sorry distinction. "I feel your pain?" Kinda like….what can I say when someone sneezes. I'm no priest, I can't bless you. I know it doesn't mean anything anymore. If its someone I know I'll say "sorry ya sneezed, there"

  17. I agree with you completely about "Sorry". In Swahili there are two ways of saying "sorry". The less common word, "Samehani" is considered quite formal and is closer to the English word. It is used for things for which the speaker is directly responsible (ie it's the word you would use after stepping on someone's foot).

    The more common word "Pole" (pronounced pole-ay) is used in the "i feel your pain" sense, and it is used ALL the time in a huge range of contexts. For example, you might say it to someone carrying a heavy load (pole for the work), someone visiting your region on a hot day (pole for the heat), or someone who had lost a relative (just pole). In English, I often feel the lack of this word.

    I'm in the gracious camp. To me, it does not imply obligation. There is also the obsolete word "graciousize" which means to render gracious – perhaps a bit more active.

  18. Mmm, I'm sitting on the gracious side of this (star-shaped, many sided) fence. I think that 'grace' and 'gracious' feel right. The skill of accepting with grace, such that the giver feels properly placed, their services desired, not-quite needed but appreciated and valued.

    From use in stiffer, formal contexts (like in relation to royalty), maybe 'gracious' has accrued some connotations that aren't based in real meaning – but surely grace is a pretty femme/feminine/femme-inine attribute. Demoiselle is also nice but I'm kinda attached to the mental picture of graceful/gracious femme.

    And it IS such a skill – I'm just a run-of-the-mill queer, but I present at different times as very masculine, very feminine, very andro, very anything else. So people bring out different parts of my mix-n-match gender.

    One of my mates is pretty chivalrous and quite butch, and when we go places I respond in femme-inine ways. She opens doors and buys drinks and subtly physically protects people – and it's so difficult to accept and work with her with ease and grace. I get clumsy and she often has to tell me to go first. Although maybe that's down to my vacillating between gender shapes – or perhaps to the fact that I'm used to doing those things all the time for everyone. But I do admire the way some people are able to receive that kind of tribute so well, it's lovely to watch.

  19. Hm. I'm not sure what it is, but I find myself on the receiving end of lots of [what could be deemed, in Sinclair's terminology] chivalrous behavior. In the past, especially when this behavior was given by friends-not-lovers and was something I *needed* to accept (buying dinner when I really couldn't afford it, insisting on crash space, generally providing comfort and protection), I had to teach myself to receive gracefully. To be a good receiver of other people's wonderful, well-intended gifts and affections. And that was difficult to reconcile with my independence – the feeling that I *should* be doing everything for myself.

    I now, as several other folks have mentioned, think of my receptiveness/myself as a receiver of chivalry in terms of grace. Both in an aesthetic, performative context – the sincere thanks, the wide smiles, the gently inclined head – and in an almost spiritual context – regarding the chivalry I receive as grace-given, freely and joyfully. In these terms, it only makes sense for me to respond to such given grace with grace – it fosters a whole dialogue of generosity, gratitude, and [internal/external] beauty.

    So, for me, when I receive chivalry, I am graceful. I do prefer this to "gracious" because, while they do come from the same root, "gracious" does connote a level of artifice, whereas I can be graceful, "full of grace" sincerely. (This is the same reason I prefer "graceful" to "courtly" – as an Arthurian lit nerd, courtly implies the icy queen who demands much of her knight.) And likewise, when I act chivalrously, I am giving gracefully, freely – simply because I choose to do so out of that nurturing, protective place in myself.

  20. Grace is the first word that came to my mind and after some research/consideration, I still vote for grace or graceful…. I love words and especially contemplating all the shades of meaning that influence and complicate our word choices. This was a fun exercise. I prefer grace because it includes shades of being considerate, thoughtful, and kind, but also brings to mind a picture of movement with ease and suppleness, and in addition it links to the concepts of gratitude, honor and dignity.

    Languages are alive and for that reason sometimes words change and/or hold different meanings for different people. And so, I'm not entirely surprised that some here felt gracious carries a connotation of obligation. However, I must say that I strongly disagree with the notion that obligation be associated with grace, or the act of being gracious, in any way shape or form. As a matter of fact, that's precisely the point we're trying to make by discussing chivalry, I think. All the definitions I just reviewed include a religious usage of the word which stresses that the grace of God is given freely, as an unmerited favor …. One does not earn God's grace. I believe this is especially relevant to the discussion, because as I understand it, Sinclair's chivalrous person is not giving with any expectation but rather from the heart, just because…, right? And that is the opposite of a situation where the "chivalrous" giver feels entitled to get laid because of all the door openings and chair pullings; and the receiver is obligated to put out. That in fact is the ugly disrespectful image of chivalry. I think what we're shooting for here is something more graceful, beautiful, fluid.

    I found it super interesting that my ancient monstrously heavy Brittanica makes the following point that I did not see mentioned elsewhere (and so it was worth hefting it across the room :)

    "Graceful commonly suggests motion or the possibility for motion; [I]beautiful[/I] may apply to absolute fixity; a landscape or a blue sky is [I]beautiful[/I] but neither is [I]graceful[/I]. …… Graceful applies to the perfection of motion, especially of the lighter motions, which convey no suggestion of stress or strain, and are in harmonious curves." I like this in particular because it brings to my mind the idea of a dance; plus, of music; and of comunication, the give and take of interaction between a couple.

    Remember also that a grace note in music is actually an embellishment, and not essential to the main melody or harmonies. Yet grace notes add complexity, depth and interest to the composition. I think in this same way, chivalry and the graceful acceptance of chivalrous acts, do not or should not define a relationship but rather can enriched our engagement.

  21. Hmm. I like the word "gracious" best of all the suggestions so far, but I'm not sure it's exactly the right word, either. I guess, to me, "gracious" connotes a certain air of modesty, and I'm not so fond of linking modesty with femininity. otoh, being gracious is not necessarily a femme trait; as you point out, many femmes are also chivalrous (I am, in my own ways, largely because I was a Girl Scout for 12 years), and I ABSOLUTELY have described butches as gracious. (And I'd do it more if the lot of you could figure out how to accept a compliment!) Typically, though, the word I use to describe masculinely-id'd folk who are good at receiving chivalrous attention is "gentile" as in "gentility," or "gentlemanly." But I think when I use that word, I would also easily use the word "gracious" for that person; to me, they are differently-gendered words of the same meaning…like describing a femme as "beautiful" and a butch as "handsome." They mean the same thing as far as I'm concerned, but I like being called "beautiful" a lot more than the other one!

  22. I don't really like gracious to describe this one very particular skill in a very particular context – although it does make sense for all the reasons everyone's laid out so thoughtfully – simply because it's very commonly used in many other ways.

    I rather enjoy specificity, and using language evocatively, so I'm all for appropriating another word that's not really used. so far, to my brain, courtly seems like it really fits (leave it to a hot British femme to come up with that one, femmeismygender.) I like gentile too, though I know you weren't suggesting it outright, my lovely fellow classic femme Colleen. (xoxo!)

  23. I do not at all understand "gentile" in this context.

    Do you mean "genteel"?

  24. genteel is totally what I meant, many thanks for the correction, bzzzzgrrrl.

    in looking up both genteel and courtly, it's clear that both these words have troublesome origins insofar as the class, privilege, and sterotypical femininity they imply. I had no idea genteel meant "conventionally or insipidly pretty." I take issue with the idea of inspid prettiness in general, of course.

    that said, I think it's still in our power to subvert and reclaim these words, if we do it thoughtfully. man, this language thing is hard and stuff. :)

  25. Oh please muse, let's keep looking.

    Somebody grab a thesaurus! Genteel and courtly feel so classist and moneyed. Ug! Maybe I've just spent too much time in the deep south but genteel gives me the creeps, it screams "plantation owner", gone with the wind…

    Yeah this language thing is wild and crazy! That's why it's so fun :>)

  26. I'm quite fond of "courtly." I like how it matches with chivalrous – both words are quite loaded with a particular genre and both words need some intentional claiming. I also like how it relates to courting.

    Maybe it doesn't work for everybody, but I think it's my pick. I loved watching this conversation unfold and talking to some of you more in depth about it – thanks!!

  27. I really like the demoiselle, to me the giving and receiving of chivalry is rather like a dance. One needs to be an active partner for it to appear comfortable. You step here, I dip there. The idea of damselling oneself to one’s ‘knight’ is lovely.

    I agree there needs to be a name for the response. Courtly is okay but kind of staid to me, more architectural than intimate. I want us to discover something feminine and responsive.

  28. I agree with Tina! “Gracious” is the word for the reception of chivalry.

    Example: The hostess graciously accepted my gift of wine.

  29. I'm definitely voting for "courtly! I was sold on it as soon as I read it! Gracious is not specific enough. Courtly hones in on "gracious recipient of chivalry and politeness"

  30. Let me comment on the side note. I often apologize empathetically to which people respond "It's not your fault." But that's not my point. I say "I am sorry" because I am sorry the situation is what it is. I definitely agree that language fails me in that respect.

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