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The origin of the phrase “You are a Gentleman and a Scholar”


TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read) Version of this post

This is a long and comprehensive post, so here is the TL;DR (“Too Long; Didn’t Read”) version of the origin of the Phrase “you are a Gentleman and a Scholar”: Basically it means that you are regarded for your achievement as a human being, usually because of some “passing” gesture or remark, that denotes that you espouse qualities that were highly regarded by Men in days past. In such times, being a gentleman and a scholar were regarded highly, so for you to show qualities of both, meant you were to be esteemed highly.
This timeless phrase was reintroduced to modern American popular culture by a man who certainly epitomized the phrase in its deepest sense: J.D. Salinger.

The roots of “You are a Gentleman and a Scholar”

The phrase: “You are a Gentleman and a Scholar” has roots much farther back in time, however and it’s a phrase that many people might not have inspected too far beyond it’s surface.

As a compliment, few other phrases can evoke such a high regard in so few a words while at the same time, helping to establish that the purveyor of the commentary deserves a spot next to the one whom they conveyed the compliment to.

It allows a collegial feel, while simultaneously elevating the scope of the situation and yet, it allows for all parties involved in a momentary and ultimately forgettable exchange, to move along on their merry ways.

A tribute to the comradery of men in search of the highest achievements in society, this phrase is perhaps the easiest compliment to pay, for the most trivial of gestures which evoke it.

But where did the Phrase “you are a Gentleman and a Scholar” come from?

Specifically, the phrase “A Gentleman and a Scholar”, has its roots in the idea that it was noble (in the aspirational form) to aspire to scholarly achievement and that it was regarded highly if a man were a gentleman. A gentleman was one who had a family crest or was from a family with property and distinction (though not of nobility/royalty). A combination of these two ideas formed somewhere in 18th century England, where such a combination would suffice as a lofty goal.

A story, which could easily be seen as an anecdote to explain a practical application of this phraseology follows.

A brief anecdotal exploration

The Phrase: “You are a Gentleman and a Scholar” was first introduced to me by my mentor and Grandfather when I was about 12 years old.

Today, while coming out of a local grocery store, I decided I would undo the unspeakable harm caused by the family man with 4 children who recently left his cart in the middle of a parking lot. I’m still unsure of why this tiny situation actually affected me. I took his cart and placed it on the front of my cart, steering the two carts back towards the corral at the entrance to the store. On my way, a man probably in his 60’s exited his car and accompanied me on my walk towards the store.

I asked him, thinking I would showcase my willingness to be helpful, if he would like the cart I had on the front of mine. As he smiled, I pushed the front cart off of the rear cart and let it roll towards him. He caught it and immediately brought it to the line of carts he apparently never intended to approach. I had not listened well enough to his declination of my offer, and instead I had become a self-righteous fool for all to see.

I quickly acknowledged my mistake and apologized profusely, proclaiming my idiocy. He stopped; turned to me and exclaimed, “…no, Sir, you are a Gentleman and a Scholar.” I blushed. He stuck out his hand; I, mine, and we clasped hands in a gesture we apparently were mutually proud of, regardless of the inherent misgivings.

I noticed his Masonic Lodge designation pin on his shirt, and his name: Joaquin.

We had a moment.

Nothing more was said, but nothing more was necessary. We both went on our way.

He, proud that he could diffuse some period of self pity as I shamed myself silently in my own head. Me, with a reaffirmation that there were still good people in the world.

Was all of this so easily understood?

But then I got to thinking: I have always just used this “slogan” (if you will), as a way to half-heartedly downplay some contribution by perfect strangers, or to sarcastically half-congratulate a good acquaintance on a job well done.

I had never taken this phrase (which I was presently determining was a very thorough compliment), as seriously as perhaps it warranted.

Are the Masons a Gentlemanly, Scholarly people?

I immediately recalled the PR campaign I had always associated with the Masons, whereby they attempt to convince everyone who may be interested in their fraternal society, that they are in search of a certain completeness and an elevation from the norm that can only be attained through the uplifting of others and the continual increase in knowledge…yadda yadda.

Was it possible that my own half-hearted usage of this phrase was in error? Was it true that the uplifting of others was a deeply Masonic tradition? Was Google going to prove my hunch? Would anyone read this?

Maybe more for myself than any reader who may one day view this, I wanted to see if I could find a practical way to showcase this ideology. So here we are: discussing a phrase so eloquently portrayed by Joaquin in Southern California, by well placed men in 18th century England, and by cynical, on the edge, hypocritical, dare I say: douchebags like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the quintessential American Novel.

Maybe my earlier impression of the phrase had more relevance than the lofty thoughts I approached today. Maybe Joaquin was being facetious.

So: a quick examination of the real meaning of the words and how they can be applied in a few different settings.

A word of warning: every time you hear this phrase it may not be a compliment. I say this because I will probably still use it sarcastically. Which probably make me less of a gentleman and even less of a scholar.

Here’s the Meat of the origin story

The original intent, surely, was as a way to elevate your own self-view as a “learned gentleman” of Britain. Simultaneously, you could “selflessly” uplift the man who, while polite and perhaps by extension, learned, was not nearly as gentlemanly nor as scholarly as you, which left you in a position to levy the judgment on him that he was a Gentleman and a Scholar.

Perhaps, as this practice of complimenting the other guy, became commonplace, the more humble people of the society, in an attempt to stay within social norms, did in fact resolve to acknowledging their contemporaries’ level of education and willingness to perform a polite act. This is perhaps where the more genuine and complimentary aspects of the story come into play.

Mr. Salinger brought it back into common usage through the hypocritical and roguish, everyman with a chip on his shoulder, Holden Caulfield. This is perhaps the beauty of the story told through the 17 year olds eyes. It’s brilliantly poignant, seriously forthright and disturbingly ambiguous in its delivery. Was Mr. Salinger trying to deliver a satire on the beautiful fragility of the human psyche? Hasn’t this been explored enough by the millions of college Freshmen and High School Juniors to tackle this generation old question?

J.D. Salinger and the quote "You are a Gentleman and a Scholar"
The whole point of this obviously rambling retelling of a momentary blip on my Sunday radar was to determine how and why I would or would not continue to use the phrase: “You Sir, are a Gentleman and a Scholar.”

I’ve come to a couple of conclusions:

Firstly, I will keep using this phrase, sometimes as a genuine compliment, where deserved and sometimes to make my friends feel good, while silently laughing at their efforts in my own head.

Secondly, I DO BELIEVE that Joaquin intended to compliment me for my obvious desire to save him 5 seconds in his procurement of a shopping cart by giving him one of my own, even though he didn’t need one. Though, it would be funny, if somewhere he is retelling this story from a different lens, laughing at my ineptitude in seeing his sarcasm. Somewhere in my zip code, a group of people playing dominoes might be laughing at me right now.

Thirdly, Mr. Salinger has once again reassured me that through his awkward but self assured narrator in his seminal novel, he was a brilliantly complex man, capable of at once, satisfying our need for internal dialog and producing exceptional satire.

A waste of time to explore the origins of this phrase?

Now, after all of these frivolous words, only a single thing is clear: I am personally less sure of the true origins and the true intent of this phrase: “Gentleman and a Scholar”.

I have wasted all of these words to define a phrase that so eloquently and concisely defines itself based on the variance of situations and intonations that it can have.

You’re Welcome.

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