What does ‘condescending’ actually mean?

When someone uses the word ‘condescending’, it is generally to describe another person’s attitude. For example, someone might be angry at how another person is talking to them and will accuse him or her of being ‘condescending’. The question is: What does ‘condescending’ actually mean and is it used in that sense?

‘Condescending’ is described as “having or showing a feeling of patronizing superiority”. Words that can often be used synonymously with ‘condescending’ include ‘snobby’ or ‘snobbish’, ‘patronizing’, ‘supercilious’, ‘disdainful’, ‘lofty’, ‘haughty’, ‘smug’, ‘conceited’, ‘stuck-up’,… the list continues. Therefore, a person who is being condescending has an attitude that fits this description. He or she might say things that imply the other person is less knowledgeable or less aware of something, almost having an undertone of pity in doing so.

Yet words with foreign origins tend to have a variety of applications. ‘Condescending’ is an example of one of these words. With its roots in Latin, the prefix “con-” (or ‘with’) in addition to the verb “descendere” (or ‘to go down, descend’), the word directly translates to lower oneself to the status of others. In a Classical Roman sense, with its culture’s strict class system, lowering oneself in this sense would have a more friendly connotation than how ‘condescending’ is often used today. For this reason, “taking a condescending approach” to something might actually be a kind gesture in some contexts. The meaning of the word as it is being used definitely relies heavily on the context of the sentence.

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