Judith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at the language of social class.
A recent survey conducted by the BBC revealed a new class structure in the UK consisting of seven social classes. The top class is termed the elite and the bottom one, the precariat, or precarious proletariat. Leaving aside any political or sociological consequences, we will almost certainly be hearing a lot more of the word precariat, until now a rarity in everyday English.
Le précariat was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers, and has since been used in other languages including Italian (precariato), German (Prekariat), Spanish (precariado) and even Japanese (purekari?to). Its meaning has evolved into that of a social class – or underclass – as formulated by the sociology professor Loïc Wacquant and the British sociologist Guy Standing in his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.
At the top of the new structure we find another word of French origin, elite, which has been used in English since the early 19th century to mean a group of powerful, influential people. English may be the language of a famously class-conscious people and have given the word ‘snob’ to the world but it relies heavily on imports for the vocabulary of class.
Social class has been defined in different ways over the years. Back in classical times, there were patricians and plebeians. In our agricultural past, class was determined by a person’s family and their links to the land – the nobility or aristocracy, the gentry, including the squirearchy, the yeomanry and the peasantry. With the coming of 19th century industrialization, the focus shifted to the individual’s relation to the means of production and the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were the two conflicting classes in Marxist theory. ‘Bourgeoisie’ and ‘petite bourgeoisie’ were also used in non-political contexts to refer to the growing middle classes. Recent times have tended to speak mainly of ‘the middle class’ and ‘the working class’, with the middle class often divided into upper and lower middle class. The terms ‘upper class’ and ‘lower class’ are less frequent in serious discussion of class.
By studying corpus statistics we can see how adjectives ending in ‘-class’ are actually used and gain a better picture of our perception of class. ‘Working-class’ is typically followed by the nouns ‘struggle(s)’, ‘movement’ and ‘exploitation’. ‘Middle-class’ collocates with ‘suburb’, ‘families’ and ’respectability’; ‘upper-middle-class’ with ‘suburbanites’, ‘enclave’ and ‘accents’, and ‘lower-middle-class’ with ’background(s)’, ’ insecurity’ and ’origins’. ‘Lower-class’ is used of ‘delinquents’, ‘accent’ and ‘subculture’, whereas ‘upper-class’ is used largely in insults, followed by words such as ‘twit(s)’, ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’.
Social class has become more fluid: in the 19th and early 20th centuries the English language adopted the French forms arriviste, parvenu and nouveau riche to speak in a disapproving way of people who, in the latter half of the 20th century, would be spoken of approvingly as upwardly mobile and aspirational. If someone is described as being of lowly or humble origins, they have usually made it up the social ladder!
More informal words describing individuals are nearly always used as insults, giving us a polarized view of a posh bunch of la-di-da, toffee-nosed upper-class twits, Hooray Henrys, chinless wonders and toffs with plummy accents at one end of the spectrum, and at the other a common bunch of chavs, oiks and plebs.
In 1990, the incoming British Prime Minister, John Major (who rose to the highest office from working-class origins!) vowed to create a ‘classless society’. It seems Britain still has some way to go.