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Proud to be a pleb?

Since the Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s unwise – and much disputed – outburst to a Downing Street police officer last week, the word ‘pleb’ has been all over the news. So it’s not surprising that lookups of the word on MEDO have soared, with a peak of over 2,000% of the usual number on Monday, when the media furore was at its height.

So what is a pleb? MED sums it up nicely:

an insulting word for an ordinary person. This word shows that the speaker thinks ordinary people are not important or intelligent.

There are two related and equally derogatory adjectives: plebby, meaning ‘typical of or suitable for plebs’, and plebeian:

typical of someone from a low social class, rather than of someone who is from a higher social class or well educated. This word is usually used in an insulting way.

Actually, I’d change that ‘usually’ to ‘always’. Pleb is a word that has mostly fallen out of use, and was in any case restricted to being used by the privileged against the rest – the unwashed, undifferentiated mass. And it’s the attitude revealed by the – alleged – use of this four-letter word that has got people riled, far more than the other four-letter words that accompanied it, not least because it chimes with the view that the government is led by, as one of their own backbenchers put it, “arrogant posh boys” who “don’t know the price of milk”.

This past week has also seen the annual conference of the Conservatives’ beleaguered and much-mocked Liberal Democrat partners, several of whom, delighted to find the boot on the other foot for once, have shown no qualms about landing a few well-aimed kicks on their coalition partners’ behinds. Business Secretary Vince Cable raised a laugh with the claim that forms the title of this post; and apparently you could even purchase at the conference a badge reading I’m a Pleb, to be worn proudly as a rebuke to those who believe that to be not wealthy, not privileged is to be inferior.

Anyone who has had the benefit of a classical education, as Mr Mitchell presumably did, will know that the English pleb is a back formation from the Latin plebs, the name used in ancient Rome to distinguish the class of non-aristocratic property owners from the patricians at one end of the social scale, and the landless and slaves at the other.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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