John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Manners maketh man


A post from last September, “Take off your hat, sir,” continues to provoke occasional comments, including this most recent one: “I know you say it's disrespectful [to leave one’s hat on in a courtroom], but why is that? it just doesn't make sense.... so please explain that to me so I have a better understanding and so I have a better reason than ‘because it shows respect.’ ”

I can give some historical perspective. Removing headgear was likely a gesture of peacefulness. A warrior removing his helmet exposes his head, and this gesture of vulnerability indicates that no harm is intended. Similarly, the custom of shaking hands upon meeting seems to have originated as an indication that one is not carrying a weapon.

Over time the practice of uncovering took on additional meanings. A man removed his hat as a gesture of respect for authority in the presence of the monarch or a judge. And in time good manners dictated such practices as removing the hat at the theater, at the dinner table, at the opera, in church, in an elevator when a lady is present. Tipping the hat in encountering acquaintances became a gesture of friendly acknowledgement.

This may seem quaint and arbitrary to you, particularly if you’re wearing a baseball cap at table in a laughable effort to conceal your male-pattern baldness. And it is. Manners are inherently arbitrary. If you are male and Jewish and Orthodox, you follow a completely different set of customs about headgear.

Manners are like idioms in language. Idioms convey meanings that are not expressed by the literal words, which is why students learning a new language have to memorize idioms. There is no point in arguing over the gender of nouns in French or German; they’re just that way, and if you don’t trouble to learn them you will sound uneducated and crude to native speakers.

The force of custom can be stronger than law, which is, I think, why some people who write about usage often mistake stylistic preferences for rules of grammar. And even though they are wrong-headed in their advice, such people are on to something. The way you dress and conduct yourself and the way you write transmit messages about yourself.

You may think that wearing a baseball cap in court demonstrates your autonomy and your freedom from the dead hand of archaic custom. That’s fine, but you should be aware that the judge is going to think that you’re just a jerk or a slob. You can ignore or flout the conventions of standard written English, “just so long as you get your meaning across,” as my freshman composition students used to say, so long as you can accept that some readers will conclude that you’re subliterate and will then ignore what you have to say.

Just take off your hat, and no backtalk.