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An at­ti­tude has to do with po­si­tion. This can be either a po­si­tion of the body (“at­ti­tude of at­ten­tive­ness”), or of an air­craft, whether it is say nose-up or nose­down. Or “at­ti­tude” can mean a po­si­tion of mind and be­lief (“at­ti­tude of de­nial”, “at­ti­tude to­wards cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment”).

Of late, how­ever, we have been wit­ness­ing the emer­gence of a new, and now prob­a­bly more com­mon, mean­ing of “as­sertive per­son­al­ity”. This is an­other Amer­i­can­ism. The new “at­ti­tude” is no longer a neu­tral ori­en­ta­tion of ideas, where we needed an ad­jec­tive to say what kind of an at­ti­tude was in­volved (“a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude”, “a neg­a­tive at­ti­tude to­wards racist lan­guage”).

The new mean­ing of “at­ti­tude” doesn’t have a plu­ral. It is usu­ally “with at­ti­tude”, or “have an at­ti­tude”. One type is seen in “the sales­per­son must have had a bad day and was full of at­ti­tude”. This means that he was tru­cu­lent, ob­du­rate, even ag­gres­sive. This sense of “at­ti­tude” is neg­a­tive, quite strong, and has an un­pleas­ant ef­fect on the per­son on the re­ceiv­ing end.

A sec­ond and more gen­eral type of “at­ti­tude” is not so neg­a­tive. It means some­thing like “strong per­son­al­ity, clearly ex­pressed”. As in: “My daugh­ter brought home a new cat. This is one fe­line with at­ti­tude.”

Such a cat – I now write from re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence – stamps around the house and yells. It’s a Si­amese. It has per­son­al­ity. It has wants and needs, and it makes them felt when and how it likes. There is no doubt that it has at­ti­tude. A sur­feit of it. Or I might say to a ve­he­ment friend: “Try ton­ing down the at­ti­tude. You’re com­ing over too strong”.

You can have an “at­ti­tude prob­lem” and you can “cop a lot of at­ti­tude”. That would make no sense with the orig­i­nal mean­ing.

With a bit of imag­i­na­tion we can spec­u­late how this shift of mean­ing and us­age could have come about. “I don’t like your at­ti­tude” is the old mean­ing. But it im­plies both that the per­son with the at­ti­tude is ex­press­ing it strongly, and that the per­son ex­posed to that at­ti­tude doesn’t like it.

From there it’s not a big step to “at­ti­tude” be­ing taken as “strongly ex­pressed ori­en­ta­tion and be­hav­iour”.

Pub­lic fig­ures th­ese days thrive on “at­ti­tude”. It helps pro­vide a sense of iden­tity and to get peo­ple to lis­ten. Mod­esty and shrink­ing violets don’t sit eas­ily with mod­ern at­ti­tude.

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