Did someone call you ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ and you’re not sure what they meant? Are you wondering if this is a compliment or an insult?
The idiom ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ implies that someone is admirable, honorable, well-behaved, and well-educated. In the common usage of the phrase, it is typically said in a grandiose and light-hearted way.
The idiom ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ means someone that is of high esteem, admirable, well-behaved, and well-educated. It can be used as a compliment sincerely, but many times it is used in a lighthearted and bombastic way.
This is an interesting phrase because it is often used in a way that isn’t completely serious, but it also isn’t typically used in a way that is insulting, sarcastic, or mocking the recipient. Instead, it usually is a good-natured comment that is a bit over-the-top and theatrical.
Let’s break down the definitions of the two nouns in the phrase before looking more closely at the meaning.
The word ‘gentleman’ is a noun with several related definitions, which are:
As you can see from these six definitions of the word ‘gentleman,’ it generally refers to a man that is either of good social position or one that is honorable and chivalrous. It can also be a formal or polite way to refer to any man regardless of their class or profession. For example, the phrase ‘ladies and gentleman’ is regularly used when addressing a crowd.
The word ‘scholar’ is a noun that means:
In the idiom ‘a gentleman and a scholar,’ the word ‘scholar’ refers to a person that is learned, well-read, and respected for their studies.
These days, the phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ is frequently used in a light-hearted but well-meaning manner. Commonly, it is used in a way that is both complimentary and respectful without being too serious.
As an example, someone might call you ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ if you go out of your way to do something helpful, particularly if it displays some honor or chivalry. If you helped your friend study for a test, drove him to an appointment when his car wasn’t working, or even lent him twenty dollars, he might thank you and tell you you’re ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’
The implication of the phrase these days is usually a jovial insinuation that the receiver of the light-hearted compliment is a person of class, intellect, and honor while also suggesting that there are few individuals of such high esteem left in the world.
The earliest appearance of the idiom ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ in print dates all the way back to 1607 in George Peele’s Merrie Conceited Jests:
“He goes directly to the Mayor, tells him he was a scholar and a gentleman”)
In 1786, the phrase also appeared in the Robert Burns poem The Twa Dogs. According to The Dictionary of Cliches, it is believed that the phrase was “close to being a cliche” by the time it showed up in this poem and is used jokingly in The Twa Dogs:
“His locked, letter’d braw brass collar shew’d him the gentleman an’ scholar.”
It is thought that the use of the phrase in modern times became popular thanks to the famous novel by J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, the protagonist of the story, tells his roommate Ackley that he is ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ in this passage:
““I reached up from where I was sitting on the floor and patted him on the goddam shoulder. ‘You’re a prince, Ackley kid,’ I said. “You know that?... You’re a real prince. You’re a gentleman and a scholar, kid.”
Even though this idiom has been around for at least several hundred years, it’s possible that a person that uses the phrase has never read or even heard of the aforementioned texts. ‘A gentleman and a scholar’ shows up in a contemporary pop culture in a number of different instances. Let’s take a look at perhaps the most well-known case.
In the very popular American version of The Office, Michael Scott is seen telling someone over the phone:
“Thank you very much sir! You are a gentleman and a scholar.”
He then learns that the person he was talking to was actually a woman with a low voice. This scene is found in the pilot episode of the series and is a famous example of Michael Scott embarrassing himself when he is trying to impress the people he manages in the office.
When someone says ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ in an informal setting, they are usually doing so with a lighthearted and joking tone. That being said, they aren’t making fun of or mocking the person they are saying it to. It is at once a compliment and a jovial exaggeration.
Let’s look at some examples of using the idiom in this way:
It’s possible that someone could use this phrase in a way that is meant to be insulting, but this isn’t as common as the previously discussed usage. If someone was being sarcastic in their use of the idiom, it would be clear from the context and tone of the statement.
For example, if someone is mad at you for repeatedly taking their pen and not putting it back where it goes, they could say in a sarcastic voice, “thanks a lot; you really are a gentleman and a scholar, aren’t you?” Typically, though, it is meant as a funny, kind, and cheery compliment said with a bit of a twinkle in the eye.
‘A gentleman and a scholar’ is a lovely little phrase that, when directed at another person, usually implies gratefulness and appreciation with a light-hearted and sometimes theatrical tone. A casual phrase that you wouldn’t want to use in a formal or professional setting, it is best used with friends or in other informal conversations. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to use this idiom in a professional ‘thank you’ email to your boss unless you had a well-established and chummy relationship with them.
Understanding English idioms can be a bit confusing at first, but you’ll find that it is deeply rewarding to be able to add these phrases to your vocabulary. The more idioms you know, the more diversity and depth you can add to both your writing and your speech.
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