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A gentle reminder

Q: I work in an international school where the staff use the expression “gentle reminder” on an almost daily basis. I hadn’t heard the phrase before and it makes my toes curl. Did someone at the school coin it?

A: No, someone at your school didn’t coin “gentle reminder,” a phrase that always makes us brace ourselves for something unpleasant. We’ve found dozens of examples dating from the 1830s in Britain and the 1840s in the US.

In the earliest examples, the reminder is not so gentle, and the phrase is used humorously or ironically.

The oldest use we’ve found describes a fistfight: “He gave the blackguards a gentle reminder in the chops.” From The English Army in France: Being the Personal Narrative of an Officer (1830), by “J. J.” (pseudonym of John Gordon Smith, who served as a surgeon in a calvary regiment).

The novelist Charles Dickens also used “gentle reminder” ironically. Here are a few examples (the dates are for first appearances in serial form):

“gave his [donkey’s] jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminder” (Oliver Twist, April 1837) … “Newman took up one of the little glasses, and clinked it, twice or thrice, against the bottle, as a gentle reminder that he had not been helped yet” (Nicholas Nickleby, June 1839) … “jogging his arm as a gentle reminder” (David Copperfield, August 1850) …  “as a gentle reminder of which impropriety, the Queen gave him a tremendous box on the ear, and told him to go to the devil” (A Child’s History of England, June 1853).

As we’ve said, there’s no shortage of examples from the 1800s, in both British and American English. We’ve also found many examples of “tender reminder,” but there the usage is almost always literal—that is, the reminder is kindly and mild. “Gentle reminder” can go either way; it’s sometimes polite but often there’s nothing gentle about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “gentle reminder,” though there’s a definition of sorts hidden in the dictionary’s entry for the noun “nudge.” Used in a figurative way, the OED says, a “nudge” means “a gentle reminder; a prompt, a hint.”

The dictionary does have two examples of the phrase in entries for other words. For instance, this quotation in an entry for “neglect” shows the phrase expressed in a negative way:

“The car owner who neglects this vital element generally gets a none-too-gentle reminder in the form of stiff repair bills” (an advertisement in Life magazine, July 26, 1937).

And in this more recent British example in an entry for “gentle,” the adjective is used in reference to what the OED describes as “potentially negative” language, actions, and so on:

“The club would like to take this opportunity to send out a gentle reminder about the rules and procedures we have in place for the safety and wellbeing of all supporters” (The Birmingham Evening Mail, Sept. 16, 2017).

“Gentle,” according to OED citations, has been used to soften a perhaps unwelcome message since the early 1500s. Other examples include “by gentyll meanes” (perhaps 1529); “with gentyll entreatye” (1542); “a gentle hint” (1658); “gentle irony” (1951); and “gentle ribbing” (1998).

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