I don’t usually waste much time lamenting that the meanings of words change. It simply happens, and little I can do can change the results one way or the other. However, having grown up on stories of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gareth of Orkney, I do regret the loss of the original meaning of “chivalrous.”
Today, if a man is described as “chivalrous,” the speaker means that he has a condescending attitude to women. At best, he has an old-fashioned gallantry that a handful of women might find charming, but that most would quite rightly find irritating.
Either way, “chivalrous” is not an adjective that I would care to have applied to me. If it ever were, I would wince, and immediately ask the speaker what I had done to annoy them. Somewhere along the line, I would most likely apologize.
However, “chivalrous” used to have other meanings as well. The most basic one is derived from “cheval,” the French word for “horse,” and means a mounted warrior – by implication, a member of the medieval social elite.
But the meaning whose loss I regret means a sort of ethical activist. Influenced, interestingly enough, by the Moorish culture of the Iberian peninsula, this meaning was partly an effort to control the medieval warrior class when it wasn’t fighting.
By this definition, a chivalrous man was one who did not abuse his strength, but was self-effacing and used it on behalf of those unable to help themselves. In the courtly love tradition, this chivalry was especially extended towards women of the same social class – hence the modern meaning – but in medieval tales and ballads, the same obligations were supposed to extend to other men and other social classes. By this definition, a chivalrous man was an admirable one, doing his best not to abuse his privilege and act socially responsible.
So why does this lost meaning matter? Aside, I mean, from the fact that, if I had grown up to live my childhood dreams, I would be spending my days wandering the highways and back roads and looking for wrongs to right, preferably on horseback?
Simply this: it would still be useful to have a word that covered this original meaning. Specifically, it would refer to a man who was aware of male privilege and did his best to disavow it – or, failing that, turned male privilege around on itself, and used it to advance the equality and dignity of women, minorities, and the powerless. We need the word to describe what I believe is an important ideal, to answer those who say that social progress has nothing to offer men by offering an imaginative concept to live by that would promise to bring out the best in men.
Unfortunately, if such a word is ever coined, it is unlikely to be “chivalrous.” The current, debased meaning of the word is too entrenched, and is an important referent in its own right. But I think that having a name for such a desirable male role model would be no bad thing, even thought one of the most appropriate is already subsumed by another concept.