It is quite common for a word with a specific and literal meaning to develop figurative or metaphorical meanings that are related to the literal one. And sometimes we can see this same change across multiple languages. Such is the case with polite. The Latin verb polire means to smooth, to polish, and its past participle, politus, and adverbial form, polite, came in that language to mean cultured or refined, a metaphorical polish.
The adjective polite first appears in English in the late-fourteenth century, adopted directly from the Latin and not via French as is normally the case. The original meaning in English was a literal one of “smooth, polished.” John Trevisa’s 1397 translation of Bartholommaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (Of the Qualities of Things), sort of an early encyclopedia, says this about the stone beryl:
Berill is [...] yliche in grene colour to Smaragde but it is wiþ palenesse and polit.
(Beryl is [...] alike in its green color to Emerald, but is marked by its paleness and polish.)
(Both the OED and the MED classify Trevisa’s use of polite here as an adjective, but it is clearly fulfilling a substantive role in the sentence, in apposition to paleness.)
Over time, polite began to be used in reference to language. Robert Henryson writes in the prologue to his translation of Aesop’s Fables, c. 1480:
Polite termes of sweit rethore Richt plesand ar vnto the eir of man.
(Polite terms of sweet rhetoric are right pleasant unto the ear of man.)
And as with Latin, this developed into a general sense of refined, cultured, elegant. Ben Jonson’s 1601 play Cynthia’s Revels or The Fountaine of Selfe-Love has this line in Act 4, Scene 3:
How he doe’s all to bequalifie her! “ingenious, acute, and polite”! as if there were not others in place as ingenious, acute, and polite, as she.
This sense survives today chiefly in the phrase polite society. Finally, the sense of courteous or well-mannered developed in the mid-eighteenth century.
We see the same development of meanings in French, where the word poli appears around the year 1160 with the meaning of smooth, shiny. By the late-twelfth century the word was being applied to words and diction, meaning careful, well-chosen, and it acquired the meaning of cultured in the late-sixteenth century and well-mannered in the late-seventeenth. And a similar pattern occurs at about the same time in Spanish and Italian. Interestingly in Occitan, a Romance language spoken in southern France and parts of Spain and Italy, the pattern is reversed. In Old Occitan the word polit was first applied metaphorically to well-chosen words in the mid-twelfth century, and the literal meaning of smooth, polished did not develop until the fourteenth century.
So we have a semantic change that occurs in Latin, then centuries later the same pattern repeats itself in a number of languages that borrowed or inherited the word with its original meaning.
“polite,” adj. and n., Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2006
“polit(e (adj.), Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton