10 Terms for the Common People
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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