Status words reflect changing times

Terms that at first simply denote status come to acquire moral connotations – low-status words gain negative meanings and high-status words pick up positive ones.

A new range of stainless steel KitchenAid appliances is showcased in what some millennials might describe as a "bougie" kitchen.

I was chatting with a millennial, and he said his cousin lived in a bougie apartment. I knew that “bougie” was slang for “bourgeois,” but I didn’t know what he meant. Was he implying that the apartment was vulgar, evidence of the cousin’s embarrassing desire to move up in the world? Or did he just mean it was nice?  

Bougie, or boujee, as it is sometimes spelled, is the latest in a long line of words affected by a process that C.S. Lewis called “the moralization of status words.” Terms that at first simply denote status come to acquire moral connotations – low-status words gain negative meanings and high-status words pick up positive ones.   

Noble and gentle, for example, originally indicated that a person was well-born without implying anything about his or her character. Since the 13th century, however, noble has described a person of high moral principles, while gentle applies to a mild and kind temperament.

We find more examples of words going in the other direction. At first, churl (or ceorl) designated the lowest-ranking free (not serf or slave) people in Anglo-Saxon society. Nowadays a churlish person is “intentionally rude ... surly, ungracious,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Villain fell even further; it began as a term for a feudal serf but morphed into one for an evil-doer, a “depraved scoundrel.” In Old English, a knave was a boy or a peasant; now the word refers to “a dishonest unprincipled man.” The list goes on – rogue once meant “vagabond” instead of “rascal,” harlot was a word for “servant” before it meant “rogue” (in the 13th century) and finally “unchaste woman.” Vulgar itself comes from the Latin for “common people,” but now refers to something or someone who is “coarse” or “unrefined and ill-bred.”  

Where does that leave bougie? The bourgeoisie, which is defined by its in-between position, was a class that historically faced scorn by the upper classes (who condemned it as vulgar and striving) and the lower classes (who criticized it as conventional and overly materialistic). If you say “Cherry cabinets and granite countertops are so bourgeois” you might mean either that they are in bad taste, or a sign of their owner’s degenerate materialism.

Bougie is being rehabilitated. Sometimes it has the negative connotations of bourgeois, but it can also imply a delight in having enough money to indulge in middle- or upper-class things. Bougie means acknowledging that there might be something pretentious about your truffled lobster mac ’n’ cheese, but enjoying it anyway. Bougie turns the moralization of status words on its head.

A “bougie” apartment is probably a very nice one, then, with stainless steel appliances, big windows, and a breakfast nook perfect for avocado toast.

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