Q: I keep seeing and hearing about people “treated with dignity.” Shouldn’t it be “respect”? While I can “respect” your “dignity,” I don’t “treat” you with it; it’s yours to have—not mine to confer.
A: Traditionally, “dignity” has meant the quality of being worthy, honorable, or esteemed, and traditionalists insist on using it that way.
As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “Dignity is a quality one possesses. It is not a synonym for respect, so it’s mangled in the phrase treat with dignity.”
However, Garner acknowledges that the “undignified phrase is spreading in American print sources.” We’d add that it’s seen in both the US and the UK, and that it isn’t particularly new.
We’ve found written examples for “treat with dignity” going back hundreds of years. Before we get to them, though, let’s look at how “dignity” is treated today.
Several standard dictionaries accept the use of “dignity” to mean a calm, serious, or formal manner, so to treat someone or something with dignity would mean to treat them calmly, seriously, or formally—that is, in a dignified manner.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, says “dignity” can mean “formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language” as well as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”
Merriam-Webster cites without comment (that is, as standard) several examples of the “undignified” usage criticized by Garner, including this one: “All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Oxford Dictionaries Online, in its US and UK editions, defines “dignity” as a “composed or serious manner or style” as well as the “state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” (“honor” is spelled “honour” in the British edition).
Oxford cites without comment six examples of “treat with dignity,” including this one, “We are committed to treating all persons under coalition control with dignity, respect and humanity.”
This sense of “dignity” isn’t quite the same as “respect,” which Oxford defines as “deep admiration for someone or something” or “regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.”
In fact, “respect” often accompanies “dignity” in the usage you’re asking about, suggesting that writers feel each word contributes something to the expression.
How common is the usage today?
Here are the results of our searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters: “treated with respect,” 2,570 hits; “treated with dignity,” 1,299; “treated with dignity and respect,” 601; “treated with respect and dignity,” 321.
The usage seems to be especially common among health-care providers, as in these examples from the iWeb corpus, a database that follows nearly 95,000 English-language websites:
“Specialist healthcare professionals will make sure you are treated with dignity” … “Patients and their families have the right to be treated with dignity and respect” … “While in our care, patients are treated with dignity, respect and compassion” … “We work hard to ensure every patient receives proper treatment and is treated with dignity and respect” … “It’s very important that the patient continues to be treated with dignity and they do not suffer.”
We suspect that “treat with dignity” is here to stay, and you’ll just have to get used to it. And as we’ve said, it’s been around for a long time. The two earliest examples we’ve found treat things, rather than people, with dignity.
The earliest is from an Aug. 13, 1736, letter in the Gentleman’s Magazine, commenting on a scholarly exchange of views in the London periodical about the Book of Job.
The author, who refers to himself as “Ignoto” (Latin for “Unknown”), says that in Job “a high philosophic Question is treated with Dignity, and the Decision given in great Majesty.”
(The lexicographer Samuel Johnson was a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine. And some scholars believe Johnson’s 1755 dictionary may have influenced the author of our next citation.)
In an entry for the Roman historian Tacitus in Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a classical dictionary, the English classicist and lexicographer John Lemprière writes:
“Affairs of importance are treated with dignity, the secret causes of events and revolutions are investigated from their primeval source, and the historian every where shows his reader that he was a friend of public liberty.”
The next example appeared in the July 1792 issue of the Literary and Biographical Magazine and British Review (London). A dispatch from Paris during the French Revolution, dated June 22, 1792, reports on a letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette urging the French National Assembly to respect King Louis XVI:
“M. La Fayette concludes with exhorting the National Assembly to cause the King to be respected and treated with dignity.”
We found many written examples of the expression during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention the expression “treat with dignity,” but the OED entry for “dignity” hasn’t been fully updated since it was first published in 1896.
When the noun “dignity” appeared in English in the 13th century, Oxford says, it had three meanings: “The quality of being worthy or honourable” … “Honourable or high estate, position, or estimation” … “a high official or titular position.” The last sense, which has given us “dignitary,” is now archaic.
The earliest written example in the dictionary is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:
“Nis naut edsene inhwich dignete ha is, hu hech is hire cunde” (“Nor is it easily seen of what dignity she [the soul] is, nor how noble is her nature”).
English borrowed the word from the Old French digneté, but the ultimate source is dignitātem, classical Latin for merit or worth, according to the OED.