Word of the Week – Plebeian

Has anyone ever called you a pleb or have you heard someone refer to something as plebeian?

ple·be·ian (plĭ-bē′ən)

adjective: 1. Of or relating to the common people of ancient Rome; 2. Of, belonging to, or characteristic of, commoners; 3. Unrefined or coarse in nature or manner; common or vulgar: plebeian tastes.

Used in a sentence: The millionaire called the hotel a plebeian accommodation because it did not offer room service.

noun – pleb:  1. One of the common people of ancient Rome; 2. A member of the lower classes; 3. A vulgar or coarse person.

Used in a sentence: The pleb got on his knees and begged the prince for money to buy food for his family.

Latin plēbēi(us) of the plebs (adj. derivative of plēbē(s) plebs) + -an, the common people

Plebeian first appeared in English in 1533 with reference to Roman history, meaning ‘a Roman commoner’, or ‘a member of the plebs’. The plebs were the mass of ordinary people in the Roman Republic as distinct from the loftier nobles (or patricians) who ruled as senators and consuls and claimed descent from the original citizen families of Ancient Rome.

The word was already pejorative in the original Latin – apparently nobody wants to be a mere commoner – and the more negative sense of ‘a person not of noble or privileged rank’ was born almost simultaneously in English. It’s now mainly derogatory, used for ‘a person of low social status, a common or vulgar person’.

The first shortened use, pleb, appeared in 1795, in a play (Life’s Vagaries) by the Irish writer, John O’Keeffe: You’re under my roof, you pleb.

This short plosive monosyllable has been popular ever since, in both the neutral sense (a member of the ordinary people or working classes) and the loaded (an unsophisticated or uncultured person).

If anything, plebeian and pleb seem to have gained in derogatory force over the years, so that now we are most likely to take them as slights. Certainly, the colloquial shortening to pleb adds a curtness which sounds peculiarly offensive to our modern ears. Perhaps with less rigid class divisions and social boundaries than before, we are even more sensitive to being consigned to the lowliest of them – especially so in class-conscious Britain. And yet pleb, like its near-equivalent, plebe, is also a colloquial status putdown in the U.S., used within the strict hierarchies of military academies to denote a low-ranking newbie, ‘a new cadet at a military or naval academy’.

 In Britain, where classes are still important to many today, public schools of the 18th and 19th centuries deliberately modeled themselves on ancient Greece and Rome. In public school parlance, a pleb was a pupil who was not a member of the landed classes. As these public schoolboys left school to run the British Empire, it seems they took the word with them to describe the lower orders.

These days, the word is mostly used by somebody about themselves as a mark of false modesty, such as, “I’m such a pleb when it comes to modern art.” It’s rarer to hear pleb used as an insult, although chef Gordon Ramsay used it to put down rival restaurateur Sir Terence Conran in 2003, saying  “I think he is a pleb. I would rather have food at my four-year-old daughter’s prep school than eat at Quaglino’s.”

It’s similar to some sex- or race-based insults, where it’s OK to use it of oneself, but certainly not OK to use it of someone else.

And the British government has been accused several times of alluding to the word. In 2011, an agency released a newsletter highlighting the problem of what it described as People Lacking Everyday Basic Skills. Once people figured out the full import of the acronym, the agency found itself in a heap of trouble.

#etymology, #weekly-features #weekly