10 Terms for the Common People

By Mark Nichol

The English language is rich with descriptive (and generally derogatory) terms for the common person, though many are adopted from other languages:

1. Bourgeoisie: This term, derived from the French word roughly translated as “the people of the city,” refers to the middle class rather than the common folk per se, but the sense of the word is “conventional.” The petite, or petty, bourgeoisie are those of the lower middle class. Twentieth-century journalist H. L. Mencken ridiculed the ignorant masses when he coined booboisie as a pejorative play on the term.

2. Great unwashed: The common people. An epithet of contempt for the lower classes, based on the supposition that their hygienic habits are inferior to those of the upper classes. The expression is said to have been first heard in speeches around the turn of the eighteenth century, but the first documentation is in a novel by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

3. Hoi polloi: The first word of the Greek phrase referring condescendingly to the common people means “the,” but because the phrase is not a common term in a familiar language, it is still assigned the English article: “the hoi polloi.”

4. Little people: The common people. The sense is of an inconsequential mass populace.

5. Mob: The masses as a mindless single entity driven by base or anarchic impulses. The term is a truncation of the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (“vacillating crowd”). The word is therefore an abbreviation of the adjective describing the people’s actions, not the people themselves. (From vulgus we also get vulgar, which, originally, rather than having a pejorative connotation, was a neutral term meaning “typical of people.”)

6. Peons: Menial workers. The implication is that such people can be denigrated and/or exploited with impunity. The term, taken directly from the Spanish word for a landless laborer, may also refer to indentured servants, those who are in peonage.

7. Plebeians: The common people. This word, derived from the Latin word plebeius, whose definition matches the one just given, implies small-minded attitudes and gauche behavior. Truncated forms include pleb and plebs; the plural form is plebes. (Plebe and its plural form are also slang terms for first-year students at military academies.)

8. Proles: The common people. This word is a truncation of proletariat, referring to laborers as a class. This latter term (a French word derived from the Latin term proletarius, in turn stemming from proles, or “progeny”) has an ideological connotation deriving from its use in socialist rhetoric to refer to the working people as the backbone of a society. In the slang phrase “lumpen prole,” however, the abbreviation is used in a pejorative sense with the implication that the working class consists of a mindless mob.

9. Rank and file: This phrase referring to the ordinary people in a company or organization is an extension to the civilian world of the original sense of the horizontal ranks and vertical files of soldiers in formation.

10. Riffraff: This term for disreputable people derives ultimately from rif e raf, a hybrid of English and French that means “altogether,” later evolved to “rif and raf,” or “every one.”

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12 Responses to “10 Terms for the Common People”

  • Clare Lynch

    For British readers, there’s an obvious omission here: “chav”, which in recent years has become the most common derogatory term for the lower classes.

  • Maeve

    Mark,
    Nice collection of terms.

    Your explanation of “lumpen prole” must be a later development of meaning. Marx used the term “lumpenproletariat” to denote a useless subset of society. The “proletariat,” as you say, was the backbone of society that would lead the way to a strong socialistic state. Marx recognized, however, that in the working class, as in the classes above, there are plenty of “sorry” individuals. The “lumpen prole” are the “refuse of all classes,” including “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumpenproletariat

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    Yes, a lumpen proletarian isn’t a kind of proletarian but rather is a “declassed element”–those so oppressed that they’ve “lost the habit of work.”

  • Roberta B.

    How about…………”the masses”?
    @Claire – chav? What is the origin? Maybe chaff? (i. e, leftover from winnowing)

  • shirley in berkeley

    Don’t forget Joe Blow.

  • Roberta B.

    …..or John Doe? Yayhoo?

  • Roberta B.

    …..or yahoos (as in Gulliver’s Travels), human beings in their base form.

  • Julia

    I just got really excited because three of these terms (bourgeoisie, plebeians, and peons) were on my most recent history test. 🙂 Great compilation!

  • Sally

    You forgot ‘the chattering classes.’

    Popularized by ‘the Maggot’ (Margaret Thatcher), it has become common among conservatives/right-wingers for ‘intellectuals’ or those of ‘liberal’ bent – basically ‘anyone who disagrees with me.’

  • Simon Schneider

    Very interesting.
    Is there a chance for a similar list of terms for “non-experts” (lay people, etc.)?

  • Zane

    Not really in the mood to contribute, but it did pique my interest.

    zombies (people I read are using this term economically to describe those who are nonproductive feeding off those who are productive)

    them (use more with intonation in dialog – not including my script of the same name)

    wavers (my term for drivers who drive like all the lemmings out there – derives from computer models that demonstrate the reality of how traffic moves in waves – just watch people speed up and break hard in bumper to bumper traffic)

    There was a great line uttered by Maggie Smith in a movie based on a Neil Simon play where she lamented how the once high class of individuals flying had now been lowered significantly: “Have you flown lately? It’s gotten awfully democratic.”

    lemmings (I think someone here mentioned that)

    madding crowd (always have to look that up)

    cannon fodder (existed long before cannons)

    the expendables

    peasants

    Tom, Dick, and Harry (and the joke that goes with it)

    plain Jane

    the herd (and its mentality)

    the entourage (smaller group of dedicated masses)

    silent majority (making a recent comeback)

    the american people (apparently we think alike)

  • Kevin Cooke

    I am afraid I have to disagree with Clare Lynch.
    “Chav” is not a colloquial term for the lower or working classes but rather a name for a fairly specific youth sub-culture with its own fashion & language much like mods, rockers, punks etc.
    The word chav is considered by most working class people as a derogatory term; while they will happily accept that the upper classes have to prop up their egos by creating such terms to describe those they consider below them calling one a chav is likely to bring about a strong negative reaction.

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