It’s easy to confuse the two words: urban and urbane.
Urban is an adjective that means something related to a city as opposed to a rural setting. Subways, skyscrapers, fleets of taxis, and lots and lots of restaurants are symbolic of an urban setting. One might also point to a greater amount of diversity, crime, and expensive housing.
But urbane is an adjective which means that someone is sophisticated and even potentially snooty. It is a word that many associate with cities, mistakenly. Someone can be urbane and live in a cottage in rural Martha’s Vineyard, on a hillside near Asheville, North Carolina, or in a fishing village on the Oregon coast. It’s not so much matter of location as it is a quality of life or a characteristic of values.
An urbane person is well-read, has elevated taste, and isn’t put off by cerebral issues. I have been a fan of the TV show Jeopardy for many years. Yes, I am willing to put up with Alex Trabec’s faux pas, unintentional put-downs and malapropisms. He is also a good linguist, and…most of the time…an entertaining host. But what fascinates me more than anything is the variety of people who are brought on as guests and contestants. Much of the time the lineup of contestants breaks the stereotypes of intelligence and…urbane.
The bartender from Peoria may not have completed a Bachelor’s degree, but he is really, really intelligent and knows a lot about a lot of things. The lobster fisherman from Maine is deeply engaged in opera and the fine arts. The Mennonite Sunday School teacher from Nebraska has a vast knowledge about Broadway productions, 19th Century fiction, and art of Australia. And sometimes the Professor Emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley is a dolt, unable to come up with the names of Robert Burns, Edith Wharton, Pablo Picasso, or the capital of Hungary. It’s especially telling when famous celebrities are brought on and fumble around like Middle Schoolers trying to answer the questions.
To be urbane is not necessarily about being famous. It is about being knowledgeable. And, yes, there is something about knowing how to order from a French menu in New York City, and being able to differentiate between a salad fork and a dinner fork. Urbane means that someone can circulate at a cocktail party with famous intellects and make conversation that matters.
It takes more than watching Downton Abbey to be urbane. Granted, the characters on the show are urbane as far as early 20th century Great Britain are concerned, but there is no guarantee that watching them regularly will qualify you in the same way. The Oxford Dictionary says that an urbane person is refined, polite, and courteous. You can see that these are qualities of life that exceed education, degrees, or wealth. An urbane person is more about a person who is comfortable “in her own skin” and doesn’t find it necessary to overwhelm someone “of lesser status” in life. My suspicion is that someone can’t “achieve” being urbane. They are identified as being urbane by others who see them for who they really are.
Image Credit: New Yorker Magazine