Couth in the Beginning
Long, long ago, the word “couth” was used to describe a person or group of people who was familiar. The opposite of that word, “uncouth” was used to describe a foreign or unknown person, usually with habits that were unfamiliar to the couth. Now, most of us aren’t comfortable with foreign habits and mores, and the meaning of the word “uncouth” began to morph into a term for those with bad manners. Meanwhile “couth” gradually fell out of common usage, became archaic, and was forgotten altogether.
Uncouth and a Joke
By the time people got around to writing full English dictionaries, only one word remained, “uncouth.” Now usually, a word featuring an “un” is attached to another word, and the prefix makes it mean the opposite thing, but “uncouth” was a peculiar anomaly because “couth” wasn’t an accepted word at all, at least, not in modern parlance.
It seems most likely that introducing “couth” as a word describing someone with good manners, initially started out as a joke. “Haven’t you got no couth?” someone would ask before dissolving into gales of laughter at their own wit. It could even be that people looking for an impressive-sounding word for “good manners” decided that “couth” was the logical opposite of “uncouth.” If they did, people would have laughed at their ignorance because they were all too palpably wrong.
Couth Becomes More Real
Here’s the funny thing. Whether as a joke or not, the word “couth” began to be used more and more in its new context. It still wasn’t completely accepted, but it was a word people used, and words people use become part of the language. It’s the natural order of things. The average English speaker from a few hundred years ago probably wouldn’t understand half of what we say, while we would certainly struggle to understand him. That’s because words and word usages keep changing all the time.
Not all that long ago, you wouldn’t have found the word “couth” in any dictionary, but today, you’ll find it in quite a few. Some will note it has a “humorous” origin, while others appear to take it perfectly seriously. But there are still dictionaries that don’t contain the word at all and don’t accept it as a proper English word. Who is right?
So, Is Couth a Real Word?
“Couth” is becoming more accepted as an English word, but it isn’t universally accepted at this time. It is by no means the only English word to be formed from a mistaken assumption. A source I looked at pointed out that “burgle” was only coined in the 19th century on the assumption that “burgling” is what a burglar does. Today, it’s 100% acceptable as a word, but I think we need to be a bit cautious with our couth. It’s still a little bit on the new side of acceptable.
Will Couth Become a Real Word?
We don’t know. It may fall into disuse and join its predecessor form of “couth” in the archives of little known and seldom remembered language, or it might stick, and become a perfectly serious word that is much quicker and easier to type or say than “well-mannered.” Who will decide? The popular vote of course. How do we vote for a word? By using it when we speak and write. For now, I would recommend using “couth” in its humorous context only and not including it in any formal essays or reports, at least for the present. After all, you wouldn’t want to end up in a heated argument with a teacher who subscribes to the idea that “couth” just doesn’t cut it as a word, and that it was uncouth, or at least ignorant, of you to include it in your essay.