WORDS: Courtesy

Article excerpt

WASN'T IT great to hear Tony Blair wooing the women at Wembley last week? Out came all the good words like a lover's bouquet: decency, compassion, community, honesty, responsibility, courtesy, trust ... "Oh Tony," he hoped they would say, "You shouldn't have. How did you guess they were just what we wanted?"

As the world knows, the Women's Institute rejected his advances. But it was not so much because he was a politician talking politics, as some of them complained that he was doing - it was those flowers of speech. They had a second-day look. They drooped.

One of his blowsier offerings was, I thought, courtesy. You could see why he chose it. The WI has a reputation, not entirely deserved, for being old-fashioned and its members probably would appreciate those social niceties with which the word traditionally is linked. But one thing they are not is stupid. They know perfectly well that this is not the same fine old word it was in the days of Chaucer's knight, who "loved chivalry, truth and honour, freedom and courtesy". Courtesy is an offshoot of court, which derives from the Latin cohors, which among other things meant a farmyard. But in French and English it meant something much grander - either the quadrangular mansion of a medieval fat-cat or else the palace of the sovereign.

The general assumption was that people who dwelt in such places knew how to be nice to one another, and to show consideration for others. This was not to say, of course, that they always put their knowledge into practice. Courtiers could be as villainous as anyone else. …