In the transition from one administration in Washington to another, some stocks rise and other stocks fall. That’s true on Wall Street, and for words and ideas as well: One can’t help noticing that elite has become a pejorative over the last while.
“Sell and cut your losses!” your broker might advise. (Alternatively, it might be a good time to buy cheap.) The outer space video game titled "Elite: Dangerous" (coming next year to PlayStation 4) doesn’t hesitate to use the e-word in its macho-sounding title. But “elites” seem to have become a favorite piñata of headline writers of late: in The Daily Caller, for instance (“ ‘Fake News’ Outrage Is All About Restoring Power To Elites”) or Bloomberg View (“Elites Must Either Engage Populists or Lose to Them”).
Remember when “elite” meant the “crème de la crème” – and that was a good thing?
Elite, as a noun, came into English around 1400 to mean “a person chosen,” specifically a bishop-elect. Like elect, elite stems from a Latin word, eligere, “to pick out, choose,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
That word is related to another Latin term, legere, meaning “to gather or select,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Quite a number of English words share that “lect” element – select and collect, for instance.
Intelligence is rooted in the idea of “picking up on” things, to use a rather modern locution. “When we were talking in the cafe, he let it slip that he’s just been laid off. Did you pick up on that?”
Intelligence also involves discerning distinctions between things: “an intelligent decision to go with the new software rather than stick with what they have.”
That “intel” element was originally “inter,” “between,” as in “international.”
Even neglect turns out to be another part of this word clan. To neglect is “not to pick up,” according to both the Online Etymology Dictionary and Oxford.
But back to our troubled “elites.” If they are the “chosen ones,” the big question is, “Who is doing the choosing?” Elites may be in the eye of the beholder, or the denigrator.
I recall first running across “elite” in the name of a dry cleaner in my childhood hometown. I can see it now, in my mind’s eye, on the paper wrapping the wire hangers: “Elite Cleaners,” in swirly script, with an illustration of a woman in a formal ball gown, impossibly tall, slender, and elegant.
We might call elite an aspirational adjective. Or we might call it an opinion adjective, for which there is no objective standard and which cannot be disputed. That’s part of why it works as the name of a business like Elite Cleaners. (It may, however, have a particular definition in a specific context: “For purposes of this study, an ‘elite’ school is one where...”)
Elite and elect have a common Latin root. But “elites” are in a different spot from “elected officials.” It may be that “elites” are catching it just now because they really are “chosen.” It’s just that nobody voted for them.