Don’t be so Patronizing!

I really feel like people should say this to me more often, because I do like to explain things, and that can come across as very patronizing! The curious thing about the verb to patronize by the way, is that, like many English words, it can have more than one meaning.

There’s the negative and probably more common meaning of to act in a superior manner to someone, usually by superficially appearing helpful or kind. But if you patronize a business, it simply means to be a customer there, usually regularly. How can the same word have such different meanings? To find out we have to go back to Latin.

The word patron entered the English language in the early 14th century, and meant master or protector. By the end of the century it had also come to refer to someone who supports a cause, usually through their wealth or power, such as a patron of the arts, or of a specific artist (the online artist-support platform Patreon refers to this meaning of the word). The verb to patronize developed from this, and is used in reference to businesses because by frequenting a business, you’re supporting them, just as someone might be a patron of a cause or artist.

All of these words come from the Latin pater, meaning father, with the idea being that a patron defends and protects their cause like a father does with his children. Therefore while patron referred to a master, it was usually with a benevolent sense.

At some point in the late 18th century, patronizing meaning condescending came into use. It’s unclear why it had such a negative meaning compared to the existing similar words. Perhaps it’s simply something that happens over time when a meaning has become so established: it’s inevitably going to be subverted.

Still, it’s not like the meaning is completely unrelated: the basic idea behind both meanings of to patronize is to act as though you’re in a position of power over someone, and to support them using that power. It’s just that one is negative and one is positive.

Ah, but you’d probably figured all that out anyway and I’m just patronizing you!

13 thoughts on “Don’t be so Patronizing!

  1. I get patronized all the time at work, and it drives me bonkers- I work in the financial aid and awards office at a university, and students attempt to mis-explain the loan process to me multiple times a day (like I don’t do this all day, every day, and am actually trained in it………). Sometimes I would rather they don’t patronize the office if they are just going to tell me i don’t know my job 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You should write a book about all these terms and words…. or have you?!
    I get patronised frequently due to my disability. I’m sure 90% of it is meant well. I try to come back with something good, but words never come quickly to me. Not when I need them anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is always interesting reading your posts & learning about something I didn’t know! I find it odd that patronizing started out with a positive meaning, but then turned negative. Like you said though, it does seem inevitable since a lot of words have a double meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well thats interesting that it started out as a positive term. Do you find a lot of words start out totally with totally different intent? It always fascinates me that someone, at some time, perhaps used a word in a different content and slowly it changed to mean something else. I mean, thats an influencer in its truest form! ha ha Another interesting post Niall

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It’s actually common enough for words to change meaning like that, especially if they’ve been around for a long time. Or translations of words change meaning a bit. Like in French, “complicité” means cooperation, and is more positive than “complicity” in English, even if both share the basic idea of working together.

      Liked by 1 person

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