Q: In Origins of the Specious, you describe the French attitude toward Americans by using the word “condescension” in its modern English sense, a superior attitude toward inferiors. As I’m sure you know, the word did not always refer to patronizing behavior.
A: You’re right – “condescension” is a wonderful example of the changes in our changeable language.
As every Jane Austen fan knows, the meaning of “condescension” has evolved quite a bit over the years.
In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mr. Collins describes Lady Catherine de Bourgh this way: “I need not say you will be delighted with her. She is all affability and condescension.”
These days, we don’t like condescending people, but condescension was a virtue in Mr. Collins’s eyes. He meant that Lady Catherine was capable of laying aside the privileges of rank and being nice to her social inferiors.
This sense of the verb “condescend,” as well as the noun “condescension,” was first used in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
And in Mr. Collins’s day, people generally weren’t offended when respected superiors condescended to them.
But the verb did not originally have this feudal, “noblesse oblige” flavor. At first, to “condescend” (literally, to step down with) was to make concessions in one way or another. Today, we might say something like to “meet halfway.”
The word comes from the Latin con (“with”) and descendere (“go down”).
In medieval Latin, the word meant “to be complaisant or compliant, to accede to any one’s opinion,” the OED says.
The word was adopted into English from the French condescendre, meaning “to come down from one’s rights or claims, to yield consent, acquiesce.”
The verb was first recorded in English in 1340, when to “condescend” was to yield, to give way deferentially, or to be accommodating.
From the 14th until well into the 18th centuries, the word was used in the sense of to consent, comply, or agree. These original meanings are now labeled obscure by the OED.
Mr. Collins’s uses of the verb “condescend” and the noun “condescension” are still alive and well. But they have negative connotations in our more democratic times.
By its very nature, condescension now implies that the recipient is inferior and is being patronized.
This negative sense was beginning to make itself felt even around Austen’s time, according to citations in the OED.
Samuel Johnson wrote in an essay in The Rambler (1752): “My old friend receiving me with all the insolence of condescension.”
And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in English Traits (1856): “With the most provoking air of condescension.”
Jane Austen may have felt this as well. Her character Mr. Collins is a slavish boot-polisher. And Lady Catherine is not a nice woman. She’s pompous and rude, far from courteous or gracious in her “condescension.”