Words that ooze superiority and privilege

It takes a pricey education to understand classical tongues. That’s why Latin-based pleb and hoi polloi are choice barbs used by the “upper class.”

As we talked about two weeks ago, hoity-toity, hifalutin, and la-di-da are folksy puncturers of pretension. These words have opposites in a set of terms that ooze superiority, that mock people for being “lower class” or less educated. Pleb, infra dig, and hoi polloi come directly from Latin and ancient Greek, and not by accident. No one grows up speaking the classical tongues anymore – they are “prestige” languages that require schooling to learn.

Pleb is taken from plebs, or plebeians, the “common people” of ancient Rome, the farmers, craftsmen, and bakers who were citizens but not part of the ruling classes. Pleb is found in both British and American English today, though it is pronounced and used differently. In Britain it rhymes with “Deb” and means “a member of the working classes” or “an uncultured person.” It is quite derogatory and offensive, as 2012’s “Plebgate” demonstrated. When a group of police officers refused to open a gate for a member of Parliament, he allegedly insulted them, “Best you learn your ... place. ... You’re ... plebs,” and was forced to resign as a result. In the United States, it is usually spelled plebe, rhymes with “dweeb,” and refers to a first-year cadet at a military academy.

In the television series “Downton Abbey,” the Earl of Grantham reacts with horror when his heir informs him that he has gotten a job. Both the word job (Samuel Johnson described it as “a low word” and defined it as “a low mean lucrative busy affair” in 1755) and the very idea of paid work were infra dig in the early 20th century among Downton’s aristocratic set. Infra dig is short for infra dignitatem, “beneath one’s dignity.” While today most of us think paid work is a good thing, English-speakers still use infra dig, especially in Britain. This summer, for example, cookbook author Nigella Lawson excused herself for retweeting a positive review of her own book by prefacing it “frightfully infra dig to retweet praise.”

Hoi polloi comes straight from Greek, where it means “the many.” In ancient Athens, which was proud of its democracy, this was often a positive term, contrasted with hoi oligoi, “the few.” (Oligarchy is thus government by a wealthy few, for selfish purposes.) By the time it made its way into English in the 17th century, though, it had become a pejorative term. It was not good to be classed with the hoi polloi, nor was it done to say “the hoi polloi,” as hoi actually is Greek for the word “the” – the phrase is redundant, like “pizza pie” or “the La Brea tar pits” (la brea means “the tar” in Spanish). 

Perhaps through confusion with the similar-sounding hoity-toity, around a third of Americans use hoi polloi to mean “the few,” as in “the luxurious lifestyles of the hoi polloi.” Would it be infra dig to point this out?

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