Except when they are hurling accusations like “You lie!” and shouting epithets such as “Baby killer!” members of the United States House of Representatives are unfailingly courteous to a fault. They invariably refer to each other as the “Gentleman from Waxahachie” (or wherever) and never as “the idiot on the other side of the aisle.” They seem a bit uncertain about protocol, however, when a member happens to be a woman. If you watch Congressional proceedings on the indispensable C-Span, you will notice that a Congresswoman is not referred to simply as “the Lady from Dubuque” (or wherever), but as the “Gentlewoman” and sometimes, redundantly, as the “Gentle lady.”
A “gentleman” (the word gentle is from the Old French jentil, meaning “high-born”) was originally used to denote a man entitled to bear arms under heraldic rules, but who did not rank as high as the nobility (barons, earls, marquesses, and similar panjandra). The woman with whom a gentleman consorted came to be known as a “lady” (originally Old English hlaefdige, meaning “one who kneads the dough”), a term previously used for a female head of a household. “Gentleman” and “lady” evolved to mean persons of a loosely defined social position—better than the rabble, but not necessarily ultra-highly elevated, a standard that was variable in different times and places. Ladies and gentlemen were people who dressed in clean clothes, never said “I ain’t” or “you is,” didn’t slurp their soup, and generally conducted themselves with propriety—just like a member of the Congress.
“Gentlewoman” is an acceptable, though slightly archaic-sounding, synonym for “lady,” but it can also mean (as Shakespeare used it) an “attendant upon a lady of higher rank.” Other than being the brand name of a model glider, “gentle lady” is apparently an invention of the Congress, for use when “lady” or even “gentlewoman” just doesn’t seem polite enough.
Always polite enough, but sometimes just barely, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, proffers these lyrics with kid gloves:
A little bit of politesse
Can hide a multitude of sins.
That’s why a villain with finesse
Almost always wins.
And so I say both “thanks” and “please,”
And I obey the Golden Rule,
‘Cause if I mind my Qs and Ps,They won’t guess I’m a fool.