“Elite” Is Not a Dirty Word

By Maeve Maddox

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Used mostly as a noun or as an adjective, elite derives from an Old French verb meaning “to choose.” The elite are “the Chosen.”

As a noun, elite is “the pick or choice part of society or a specific group of people thought to be superior in terms of ability or qualities when compared to the rest of society.”

When judged according to ability, elite groups include athletes, scholars, actors, authors, scientists, and other individuals who earn their eliteness by developing innate talents through hard work.

Regardless, the big lineman is elite and he isn’t afraid to go out and prove it.

By the time MGM’s Leo the Lion was celebrating his tenth birthday in 1933, Clark was cemented as one of the top elite of MGM’s sparkling roster of stars.

According to Zuckerman, scientific elites ‘are worthy of our attention . . . because their collective contributions have made a difference in the advance of scientific knowledge’.

Not only people, but also institutions can be considered elite.

Rice University, a private school, also is considered an elite, tier-one school.

College basketball has a royal class, an exclusive fraternity of elite programs.

It is one of the few elite public schools without a selective admissions system.

Another type of elite is “a group or class of people who have the most power and influence in a society, especially because of their wealth or privilege.”

Strikes across the Arab world are lauded by the political elite as a good thing.

Sanctions, at least in the short term, will enrich and empower the ruling elite.

Most of these new nations are in effect banana republics, run by wealthy elites.

National ruling elites lose all power when they cannot control the purse strings.

The Ngram Viewer suggests that elite did not become a mainstream word until the 1960s and later, beginning a rise in the 1940s and 50s.

The word may have caught the public fancy because of a radio program called Duffy’s Tavern, which was popular in the 1940s and early 50s. Each episode began with a theme song, followed by the sound of a telephone ringing. The phone was answered by a man who spoke with a thick New York accent, saying,

“Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’. Duffy ain’t here—”

The show was a comedy and the opening line was meant to be funny. It was clear from Archie’s accent and grammar that Duffy’s tavern was not the kind of place that the elite—understood to mean “high-class, wealthy people”— would ever go to dine.

Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, elite has become a political trigger word which, like so many others, is on its way to being leached of meaning.

For example, wealthy politicians who graduated from elite universities and send their children to elite private schools make speeches in which they castigate “the elites” for a variety of perceived affronts to the common good.

It seems a pity to lose such a neat little word to describe the best athletes, musicians, actors, authors, and other people or organizations that excel because of extraordinary physical, mental, or moral qualities.

As for the people who rise above all others because of their wealth, power, or unearned celebrity, there are other options.

high society
jet set
beautiful people
beau monde
glitterati
upper crust

Perhaps when speaking of people who are “elite” because of wealth, power, or privilege, we could consider these possible choices:

Adjectives
rich/ filthy rich
moneyed
affluent
well connected
prosperous
well heeled
influential
dominant

Nouns
oligarchs
plutocrats
illuminati
patricians
senators

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