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Gentlemen: their uses and abuses

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides an occasion for our columnist to check in on how an upmarket term for 'man' is faring in the language.

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The arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. after someone spotted him purportedly trying to "break in" to his own home has been analyzed from many different angles.

But here's another one you may not have thought about, dear reader: the place of gentlemen in the language of policing. A recent issue of The New Yorker quoted from the 911 call that triggered the incident. (Transcripts of 911 calls quoted in The New Yorker! Yes, I know. What would Mr. Shawn say?) Here's what caught my eye, though: The caller reported "two gentlemen trying to get in a house."

The principle of the presumption of innocence is the bedrock of our justice system. That needs to be stressed without irony or nuance. But if the two men, subsequently revealed to be Professor Gates and the driver bringing him home from the airport after a trip abroad, had been doing what the caller thought they might be doing (and thought it seriously enough to call the police), they weren't gentlemen at all.

The simple common noun "man" would have served just as well, and would have done no damage to the presumption of innocence. If gentleman keeps getting dragged into dubious situations, it may lose its good name.

The New Yorker piece prompted a quick search of Google News to see where gentleman shows up in the media nowadays. The late Walter Cronkite and Kenneth Bacon, one a newsman and the other a public official, were both described in obituaries and other tributes as "gentlemen." This is how it should be. So was the golfer Tom Watson, still very much with us, whose graceful losing of the British Open will be remembered as one of the truly winning moments of sports this summer.

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