Word of the Week: Gravitas

Today’s “Word of the Week” is gravitas.  According to Webster’s College Dictionary, gravitas is a noun that means “seriousness or sobriety, as of conduct or speech.”  In the workplace, a person with gravitas can display that “seriousness or sobriety” in many ways, whether it’s delivering a presentation, interacting with clients, facilitating a meeting, or providing feedback in a performance review (think David Wallace or Jan Levenson, rather than Michael Scott from the best early seasons of The Office).

If this is the first time you’ve encountered the word gravitas, you may be more familiar with two words that are closely related to gravitas: gravity, which means “serious or dignified behavior,” and grave, which means “serious or solemn; sober” (Webster’s College Dictionary).  As you probably noticed, gravitas, gravity, and grave share a common root: grav.  As Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder notes, “grav comes from the Latin word meaning ‘heavy, weighty, serious.’”  Keeping these related words in mind may help you remember the meaning of gravitas if you come across it in the future.

For a practical example, let’s return to the example of my sister’s dogs from earlier this semester.  Atlas is an English mastiff, and in addition to his size being one of his most salient qualities, his demeanor is characterized by noticeable gravitas.  Now it may seem unusual to think of a dog as being “solemn” or “dignified”; however, according to the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Breed Standard Guide for mastiffs, gravitas in mastiffs is a normal and desirable quality.  To meet the AKC’s standard for temperament, mastiffs should display “[a] combination of grandeur and good nature, courage and docility.  Dignity, rather than gaiety, is the Mastiff’s correct demeanor” (http://www.akc.org/breeds/mastiff/index.cfm).

Possessing “[g]reat or very dignified seriousness” is a natural, intrinsic quality of mastiffs, and Atlas is no exception (Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder).  These qualities describe him perfectly.   For example, unlike my family’s labs, who nearly explode with energy and excitement when they go outside to play, Atlas walks through the yard in a very slow, deliberate manner and prefers to sit on the deck and solemnly observe what is going on.  Additionally, with the exception of his excitement at seeing my sister when she comes home from work, Atlas usually has a very serious expression on his face.

Why so serious, Atlas?

As you can see, Atlas clearly has gravitas.  Here are some additional non-canine examples of gravitas from recent news articles.

“The one thing that Denzel Washington does in nearly every film is bring a level of quality and gravitas to any production. Even in a film like Out of Time Washington raises a film’s quality with his sheer presence; he’s generally so good, and has such a presence, that even mediocre films seem better with him in it. And the better he is the better a mediocre at best film feels like. And that’s what Flight really is: a mediocre film with a transcendent performance from one of the best actors of his generation.” http://bit.ly/PS5s6w

“In Switzerland, a watch brand born of a company best known for manufacturing men’s underwear might be considered to lack gravitas. But the creators of a new timepiece from 2(X)IST, a premium underwear brand based in New York, are not shy about their model’s unorthodox underpinnings.” http://nyti.ms/SocVWy

“The lyrics for the new James Bond theme take the cake for stupidity, but that will be no impediment to sales success, because it is sung by Adele. The world’s most bankable white soul singer plus a 77 piece orchestra can give gravitas to such nonsense as ‘Skyfall is where we start, where worlds collide and days are dark, you may have my number, you can take my name, but you’ll never have my heart.’” http://bit.ly/Tt47gV

“It is not generally acknowledged – even by themselves – that Americans do formality very well. Formality, gravitas, solemnity – the Americans bring great confidence to the occasions that demand these qualities, and the celebration of the life of ambassador J Christopher Stevens, which took place in San Francisco last Tuesday, was such an occasion.” http://bit.ly/VOs4kX

“Hurricane Sandy is a particularly hot topic these days, and it’s all too easy to let the storm become a political football instead of treating it with the gravitas it merits. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was right when he said dealing with the storm and its effects was far more important than worrying how it would factor into the presidential election.” http://bit.ly/RBxKk6

“Michelle took the podium at the Democratic National Convention in September wearing a flirty custom-made printed dress designed by Detroit-born, African-American designer Tracy Reese. We’re huge Tracy Reese fans – we love her fresh, innovative take on casual fashion (and it doesn’t hurt that she always gives us a good seat at her Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows). Alas, our enthusiasm for this look ends where the actual look begins. While the dress was generally pretty, we think it lacked the gravitas necessary for such an important event. It was more ‘country club baby shower’ than ‘world-leader wife.’ We do award style points for pairing the dress with a pair of pink suede pumps from J.Crew, but not even a pair of personally cobbled Manolos could have enlivened this forgettable frock.” http://bit.ly/U4NTLM

“What Mayle’s created — again — is not a novel of great depth or gravitas, but a delightful daydream that will have readers (you) smiling your way through to the (never-far-away) end. You won’t be rewarded with deep insights into the human condition, nor will you be held at seat’s-edge by any unforeseen plot twists. You may not even remember the characters’ names once you’re finished. But like an excellent meal at a beloved restaurant, you’ll savor every morsel, and you’ll be sorry to see it end.” http://bit.ly/SON5P6

For more information on the word gravitas, please visit the following Web sites:



Works Cited:

“Gravitas.” Webster’s College Dictionary. 2nd Ed., 2001. Print.

“Gravity.” Webster’s College Dictionary. 2nd Ed., 2001. Print.

“Grave.” Webster’s College Dictionary. 2nd Ed., 2001. Print.

“Gravitas.” Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder2nd Ed., 2010. Print.

“Mastiff.” akc.org. American Kennel Club, 2012. Web. 6 November 2012.

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