The words 'polite' and 'politeness' can be traced back to general notions related to cleanliness or to smooth, polished, refined, planned, civilized, or courtly activity. Etymologically the English word 'polite' is derived from the Latinate past-participle of the verb 'polire' which is 'politus', meaning 'polished' or 'smoothed'. The word 'courtesy', in German 'Höflichkeit',  in French 'courtoisie', in Dutch 'beschaafdheid', in Portuguese 'cortesia', or in Spanish 'cortesía' ('polite') all refer back to its original root, alluding to polite or planned behavior in the court.

Descriptions of polite behavior generally include elements of correct use of language, deference, and consideration for others. For example, the online Merriam's Webster dictionary defines polite behavior as "characterized by correct social usage; [or] marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, [and] deference." Moliner (1979) defines politeness as: "Conjunto de reglas mantenidas en el trato social, con las que las personas se muestran entre sí consideración y respeto" ('The set of rules maintaned in social dealings by which people demonstrate consideration and respect for eaich other'). And Corominas (1961) refers to the adjective 'cortés' ('polite') as "aplicado a las maneras que se adquieren en la corte" (applying to the manners that are acquired in court). Overall, it seems that the concept of politeness as understood in our modern times still retains vestiges of the historical notion of politeness dealing with correct social behavior, courtly manners, etiquette, deference, affect, and consideration for others during social interaction.

The notion of politeness has been approached from two angles: first-order politeness (or politeness1 as perceived by members of different sociocultural groups, and second-order politeness (or politeness2 ) as a theoretical construct or the scientific conceptualization of politeness1 (Eelen 2001; Watts 2003, 2005; Watts, Ide, & Ehlich 1992).

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