In the last few weeks, “civility” has gone from a word rarely encountered to perhaps the most frequent noun in American public discourse. Everyone agrees: there is too little of it, our public servants need to display more of it toward one another. But – perhaps since we have until now used it only infrequently, many of us may not be sure just what kind of behavior we are referring to when we urge people to be “civil.”

What does a contemporary American mean by invoking civility as the new virtue? My American Heritage Dictionary lists a number of synonyms (under the much more familiar polite), and usefully differentiates among them: polite, mannerly, civil, courteous, and genteel. As is typical, these synonyms cover the same general semantic territory, but have nuanced differences in their meanings and connotations.

Polite and mannerly differ from civil in that they are positive in outlook – they imply ways to speak and behave where civil suggests ways not to. Being polite is displaying concern for your interlocutor, attempting to avoid dangerous confrontation or conflict, as is essential for social animals like ourselves. It involves displaying tact, showing interest in what the other person is doing or thinking (to a degree – you don’t want to get too “personal”), and expressing camaraderie.  You can be polite across a wide spectrum of social relationships: to superiors and subordinates, to friends and family, to casual acquaintances. Politeness is most likely to be manifested one-on-one or in small groups, not to large gatherings where recipients are likely to be anonymous and invisible, and with whom the speaker does not have a genuine relationship.

On the other end of the scale, courtesy and gentility imply going out of one’s way to demonstrate a delicate concern for the proprieties, and are perhaps more concerned with looking right than in showing any empathy. Both of these words etymologically imply a high class status: courtesy is the behavior expected at the royal court, and gentility is the behavior that goes with being a gentleman, in the old sense of the word – someone with enough inherited wealth not to need to work for a living.

Also etymologically, polite is closely related to polished, just as its antonym rude originally meant rough or unpolished. So polite really looks at a kind of behavior from an individual or personal point of view, one of its principal distinctions from civil, which sees the same sorts of behaviors from the perspective of how they affect a society or group as a whole.

Civil is derived from the Latin civis, “citizen,” and thus related to civic, city, and civilization.” It is about how to behave towards others in your own political sphere – people connected to you politically but not intimately. You are not supposed to behave (merely) civilly toward friends and family – you can often be polite to them, but not necessarily. What counts as rudeness (or incivility) toward a casual acquaintance can (under appropriate conditions) be received by a close friend or family member as a sign of intimacy – that you don’t need to “stand on ceremony.”

Going further back in history, civil is ultimately derived from an Indo-European root, *kei-, meaning “lie,” “bed,” or “beloved.” One shared a bed (literal or figurative) with such a person, threw in his lot with him, and thus trusted and loved him. A fellow citizen, civis, is one you can trust because of the shared bond of citizenship in a city-state. Your behavior shows that the trust is justified: all who share the relationship can be counted on to protect one another from indignities.

So civility is demonstrated by what you don’t do or say – you are not blatantly insulting, you keep your distance, you do not intrude. In another place, at another time, someone who had crossed the invisible line might be warned (usually by a superior) to “keep a civil tongue in your head,” not a “polite” or “courteous” tongue, which would go beyond bare necessities. A civil person is one who can be counted on to behave so as to keep society functioning, someone who observes the mores of the community, no more and no less.

So when we ask for civility from our politicians, we are really asking for a recognition that they see themselves, along with us, as members of a cohesive and functional society. It would seem to be the least we can expect from them.