Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This word is derived from “gal,” the original signification of which was gayety and rejoicing, as may be seen in Alain Chartier, and in Froissart. Even in the “Romance of the Rose” we meet with the word “galandé” in the sense of ornamented, adorned.

La belle fut bien attornée

Et d’un filet d’or galandée.

It is probable that the gala of the Italians, and the galan of the Spaniards, are derived from the word “gal,” which seems to be originally Celtic; hence, was insensibly formed gallant, which signifies a man forward, or eager to please. The term received an improved and more noble signification in the times of chivalry, when the desire to please manifested itself in feats of arms, and personal conflict. To conduct himself gallantly, to extricate himself from an affair gallantly, implies, even at present, a man’s conducting himself conformably to principle and honor. A gallant man among the English, signifies a man of courage; in France it means more — a man of noble general demeanor. A gallant (un homme galant) is totally different from a gallant man (un galant homme); the latter means a man of respectable and honorable feeling — the former, something nearer the character of a petit maître, a man successfully addicted to intrigue. Being gallant (être galant) in general implies an assiduity to please by studious attentions, and flattering deference. “He was exceedingly gallant to those ladies,” means merely, he behaved more than politely to them; but being the gallant of a lady is an expression of stronger meaning; it signifies being her lover; the word is scarcely any longer in use in this sense, except in low or familiar poetry. A gallant is not merely a man devoted to and successful in intrigue, but the term implies, moreover, somewhat of impudence and effrontery, in which sense Fontaine uses it in the following: “Mais un ‘galant,’ chercheur des pucelages.”

Thus are various meanings attached to the same word. The case is similar with the term “gallantry,” which sometimes signifies a disposition to coquetry, and a habit of flattery; sometimes a present of some elegant toy, or piece of jewelry; sometimes intrigue, with one woman or with many; and, latterly, it has even been applied to signify ironically the favors of Venus; thus, to talk gallantries, to give gallantries, to have gallantries, to contract a gallantry, express very different meanings. Nearly all the terms which occur frequently in conversation acquire, in the same manner, various shades of meaning, which it is difficult to discriminate; the meaning of terms of art is more precise and less arbitrary.

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