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Gentleman's handshake/agreement

Posted by ESC on October 10, 2000

In Reply to: Gentleman's handshake? posted by Sauerkraut on October 10, 2000

: : where oh where does the phrase 'A gentleman's handshake' come from and when did the public start to use it?

: Where to begin - and this applies to gentlemen's agreement as well. The custom of shaking hands began in the days of chivalry, when it was a way of showing that one had no weapons when meeting another person. This also gave rise to tipping one's hat - or in the old days, removing one's metal helmet that was part of a suit of armor - thus indicating trust that the person being met wouldn't lop off your head.

: Shaking hands, and gentlemen's agreement was a way of sealing a deal without cumbersome paperwork and the expense of having a lawyer draw up a formal contract. In those tender days of yore, a man's (person's) word was sacred, and could be relied on.

: Thus comes the expression "let's shake on it" to indicate commitment and agreement. Too bad it doesn't work well these days.

The expression probably relates back to the saying "An Englishman's word is his bond." According to "A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs" by John Simpson and Jennifer Speake (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1998), that expression dates back to 1500, "Lancelot of the Lake." Charles Dickens, in "The Old Curiosity Shop," has a character say: ".a gentleman's word is as good as his bond, sometimes better, as in the present case."

The expression "gentleman's agreement" has picked up a negative connotation because of its use as the title of the following classic movie:
"Gentleman's Agreement"
Capsule by Dave Kehr
From the Chicago Reader
A journalist (arch-WASP Gregory Peck) passes as a Jew to get the inside story on anti-Semitism in America. A product of the dawning era of Hollywood's social consciousness , it earned three self-congratulatory Academy Awards--best picture, best director (Elia Kazan), and best supporting actress (Celeste Holm)--though it looks pretty timorous now. With Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, June Havoc, and Albert Dekker.