Q: On the morning after the Presidential election, Nina Totenberg reported on NPR that John McCain had given a graceful concession speech. Shouldn’t that have been “gracious”?
A: Either one could have been used, but they have somewhat different meanings. A speech can be “graceful” (that is, elegant, fluent, nuanced, tastefully delivered, and so on), and still not be “gracious,” a word that suggests kindness, courtesy, and tact.
Interestingly, the two words have had pretty much the same meanings at different times in their lives.
When the adjective “gracious” showed up in English in the early 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant pleasing, popular, kind, or courteous. But by the mid-1300s, it also meant graceful or elegant, though that sense is now considered obsolete.
The adjective “graceful,” on the other hand, meant full of divine grace when it first showed up in English in the early 1400s. Over the next two hundred years, it also came to mean virtuous, honorable, favorable, or friendly. All those meanings are now considered obsolete.
It wasn’t until the late 16th century, according to the OED, that “graceful” took on its modern meaning of elegant in form, movement, expression, and so on.