The Latin word gravitas to mean “the dignity of leadership” came into use as an English word in 1924; since the mid-1980s it has soared in popularity.
The literal meaning of the Latin word gravitas is “weight, heaviness.” Our word gravity derives from that sense. The OnlineEtymologyDictionary observes that gravitas became useful to describe human seriousness when the word gravity acquired a mainly scientific meaning.
For the ancient Romans gravitas was the highest of the fourteen virtues. A man who possessed gravitas recognized the importance of the matter at hand. He had a strong sense of responsibility and was not given to frivolous behavior or excessive levity.
Even after Christian theology replaced pagan practice, gravitas was still cherished in leaders. Ambrose (c.339-397), a fourth century bishop of Milan, saw gravitas as a quality of mind, but felt that “the set of a man’s mind can be read in how he carries his body.” He refused to accept priests if he disliked the way they walked: “their mincing walk revealed their flighty character.”
Traditionally, gravitas is a masculine virtue, so it’s not surprising that it is often mentioned as a quality lacking in women seeking high office or other leadership status:
Miers Lacks the Necessary Gravitas [for the Supreme Court]
[Katy Couric] was perceived as lacking gravitas.
[Hillary] Clinton…lacks gravitas and integrity,
Yellen…lacks the “gravitas” necessary to carry the economy through another financial mess.
Karl Rove said that Sarah Palin lacks gravitas.
Male politicians have also been criticized for lacking gravitas:
Rubio lacks gravitas and seriousness.
[Bill] Clinton lacks “oriental” self-control and maturity, the gravitas and substance one expects in the defining figures of history.
Bush…suffers from lack of gravitas — he’s a likable fellow, casual and friendly, but not the most serious player on the national scene.
Pipes says Christie lacks the gravitas and integrity to serve as US Vice President.
In 1904 a political commentator opined that Teddy Roosevelt lacked gravitas and provided a list of what gravitas should include: “honesty, intelligence, energy, willingness to discard untenable views, wisdom, breadth of vision, depth of insight, and that nameless something that enables a man to keep all his faculties in thorough control.”
Strong words like gravitas that start out with clear definitions tend to suffer a dilution of meaning once they gain media popularity. From being an expressive term for dignity and strength of character, gravitas is on its way to becoming a throwaway word with any number of vague meanings:
Despite an engaging, nuanced performance from Robert De Niro as Frank Goode…Everybody’s Fine inevitably suffers from a lack of real emotional gravitas.
‘Before the Fall’ [a play] lacks the gravitas that the subject deserves.
As the Academy voters see it, Gravity [a movie] lacks gravitas.
While the story [Walking with Dinosaurs] is educational, and obviously geared for children, it lacks any gravitas…
StarTrek actress lends her gravitas to film promoting ideas that sun revolves around Earth.
Gravitas is now so overused that it has become a target for humorists:
Suddenly gravitas is what is needed, gravitas is what makes a country strong…Oh if only we could bottle it, think of the killing we could make! –Australian blogger Greg Jericho
In the world of popular entertainment–and that includes political commentary–the notion of gravitas has become something of a laughing stock. In another context–the world of corporate advancement–gravitas is taken very seriously. I’ll discuss the business world definition of gravitas in another article.