Changes in the Meanings of politeness In Eighteenth-century England: Discourse Analysis and Historical Evidence 1. Background The aim of politeness was to reach an accommodation with the complexities of modern life and to replace political zeal and religious bigotry with mutual tolerance and understanding. The means of achieving this was a manner of conversing and dealing with people which by teaching one to regulate one’s passions and cultivate good taste, would allow one to realize what was in the public interests and for the general good. It involved both learning a tech- nique of self-discipline and adopting the values of a refined, moderate socia- bility. (Brewer 1997: 102) Thus John Brewer (1997: 102) issues a magisterial statement regard- ing the nature of ‘politeness’ in eighteenth-century England. He sug- gests that eighteenth-century politeness was a coherent notion that could be defined in terms of key social actions such as the practice of sociable conversation, which was based on consideration for others at the same time as it was used for social refinement and the develop- ment of the appropriate expression of sociability in the context of the good of the public. In fact, the notion of politeness in the early eight- eenth century commands a set of highly contextually conditioned, his- torically specific, and occasionally contested meanings. Langford (2002: 311) asserts that politeness is a term of art, a key word (pace Raymond Williams, see e.g. 1983) “with a meaning and implications that open doors into the mentality of a period...
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