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Pleb or snob?

An altercation between a politician and some policemen featured heavily in the UK press this week and prompted thousands of extra hits on the Oxford Dictionaries definition of ‘pleb’:

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 by the Irish writer, John O’Keeffe:

1795 J. O’Keefe Life’s Vagaries v. ii. 85 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’.

Of course, if someone calls you a pleb, you might retort by calling them a snob, but did you know that the earliest recorded meaning of snob is ‘a shoemaker or cobbler; a cobbler’s apprentice’? By 1838 the term snob had developed to be synonymous with pleb, being defined as “A person who has little or no breeding or good taste; a vulgar or ostentatious person”.

Just ten years later in 1848 the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage of snob (by William Thackeray) to mean ‘A person who admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of higher social status or greater wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance’. Finally, in 1911, George Bernard Shaw is recorded as using snob in the current sense: “A person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste”.

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Which term do you consider more insulting, ‘snob’ or ‘pleb’?


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