Ever since George W Bush picked Richard Cheney as his running mate, the candidates in the American presidential race have been vying to see who can demonstrate the greatest gravitas, or appearance of dignity and seriousness. The Washington Times earlier this month called it the “gravitas gambit”, and Rush Limbaugh has been having fun playing recordings to illustrate how it has become the media buzzword of the campaign.
It’s a Latin word, a noun formed from the adjective gravis, heavy. English borrowed the Latin word via French as gravity at about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Then, it had much the same sense as gravitas now has: weight, influence, or authority. It could also refer to some matter that was grave (which comes from the same Latin source) or to a solemn dignity, a sobriety or seriousness of conduct. A weighty word indeed, the opposite of levity, a lightness that causes bodies to rise, a tendency for people to exhibit lightweight attitudes.
It was the natural philosophers of the early seventeenth century who began to lay the ground for the introduction of gravitas by borrowing the word gravity for that mysterious force that generates weight. After Isaac Newton, gravity became so closely attached to the concept that it slowly lost some of its associations with the older senses. Writers from the 1920s onwards began to use gravitas instead, as a direct reference to the classical Latin authors like Cicero who employed it in much the same way. It is very noticeable that it was for some decades the preserve of portentous leader writers, careful always to write it in italics to tell the reader that, yes, we know it’s a foreign word. But it looked so much more intellectual than gravity and was so much better for communicating that sense of classical sobriety that its appeal was irresistible.
In the past couple of decades, it has become accepted as a proper English word, is now printed without the italics, and has become more popular. There are signs that it is losing some of its force: a headline in the financial pages of the Daily Telegraph last month shouted that “Vodafone provides the gravitas”, meaning only that the mobile phone company’s excellent share performance was propping up the stock market.
But it still looks a bit poncey and foreign. That final s will forever mark it as not quite English: I expect any moment to see somebody create gravita from it in the mistaken belief it’s a plural, as some already do with kudos.
Those who prefer to get their authoritative pronouncements from gurus may be surprised to learn that that word comes from the same ancient Indo-European root: in Sanskrit guru means weighty, grave or dignified. Grief and grieve are other words from the Latin root: when one of Bush and Gore has to exchange his gravitas for grief this November, at least he’ll still be among word relatives.