v 7.00.00
23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024


It's interesting to reflect that the three major social stratifications in Britain (though they are nowadays almost as conversationally toxic as the N-word or the Q-word to bien-pensants) correspond exactly to those of ancient Rome – patricians, plebeians and proletarians (one could call them the P-words).

The Roman patricians were subdivided into two categories – the senatorial and the equestrian, roughly corresponding to our traditional aristocracy§ and upper-middle class respectively. The plebeians corresponded to our middle and lower-middle classes, and the proletarians corresponded to our, well, proletarians.

Where did these words come from?

Patrician has obvious roots in Latin pater = father and patria = native land. Plebian comes from Latin (singular) plebs = common people, but has deeper roots in Latin plere = to fill (up) and Greek plethos = crowd, whence we also have words such as plenum and plethora, I'd guess. Proletarian has the most surprising derivation of all – from Latin (singular) proles = offspring, so that the proletarians were that class of citizens whose only contributions to the state were their offspring, destined for the army or the lowest and least salubrious livelihoods – such as leather workers, soap makers, urine collectors, midden emptiers and the like.

There was also course a large sector of slaves, who were more or less outside the social system as such, plus freedmen who presumably became plebeians, plus the perigrini, Roman subjects from abroad – whether these were package holiday-makers or the contemporary equivalents of Polish plumbers I really don't know.

The Romans could probably assess one another fairly instantly on the basis of personal demeanour, eye-contact, clothing, cleanliness and, above all, speech – just as we do today.

The English class system is notorious for its intricacy and its U/non-U shibboleths of vocabulary and pronunciation were publicised by Nancy Mitford in the 1950's – though regional accent is not always a give-away: the impeccably patrician Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, had a Derbyshire accent during childhood and his flat vowels survived into adult life despite education at Eton.

One of the very worst verbal solecisms was to drop ones leading 'h's, brilliantly satirised in the short story The Magic H's in F Anstey's anthology Salted Almonds, which revolved around the fatal effect of just a single lapse when attempting to marry into the aristocracy. Droppin' ones terminal 'g's, was however quite widespread practice amongst the sportin' segment of that section of society, whose principal outdoor activities were huntin', shootin' and of course fishin' – and in the Indian Army, pig-stickin'. Whilst dropping the leading 'h' in words of French origin (such as hotel) was regarded as a prerequisite of U-ness, introducing a spurious leading 'h' to English words opening with a vowel was a matter of endless risibility to humorous magazines of that era such as Punch. Such arbitrary distinctions would be quite impossible to explain to the proverbial anthropologist from Mars.

There was also, however, a much darker side to social distinctions in the era that, roughly speaking, drew to a close at about the same time as Nancy Mitford's light-hearted jeu d'esprit. It was documented in stark and unsparing detail by that tragic figure George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, required reading for anybody who would like to understand the grisly social history of the proletarian underclass. Try Chapter 8 for starters. Orwell was my earliest hero, and has stayed the course. Nobody else even comes close to his relentless though frequently disconcerting honesty.

§I've equated the Roman senatorial class with the traditional aristocracy in England, for example, on the grounds of their political power, although the Roman senators didn't embellish themselves with hereditary titles. But, surprisingly, aristocracy doesn't really have any roots in titles either, but in Greek aristos = best and kratos = rule. The same prefix is noteworthy in a number of classical Greek cultural superstars such as Aristophanes (aristos = best, phanos = appearance), Plato aka Aristocles (aristos = best, kleos = glory), and Aristotle (aristos = best, telos = purpose or ambition).
Proletarians does sound offensively condescending. Manual working class, though often used instead, isn't really the same – why should manual work be distinguished from any other kind? My own preference would be for a neologism such as utilarians, from the Latin utilis = useful, advantageous, helpful, on the basis that the work they do is vital to society.

Workers, Peasants and Intellectuals

Whilst brooding on these weighty issues, I've been persistently revisited by this phrase, often used sardonically by my post-doc research supervisor, the deeply-lamented and much-missed Joe Gerratt, back in the 1970's when the heady whiff of revolutionary Marxism had, like ozone at the seaside, invaded the nostrils of the student body of the UK and Europe alike. He would refer to representations by the Students' Union to the Vice-Chancellor as "deputations of Workers, Peasants and Intellectuals to see the Czar", the sort of comic hyperbole I've always enjoyed. Given his family background from the Jewish community in pre-war Poland, constantly ravaged at every geopolitical twist and turn, his humorous sarcasm had an edge to it, though.

Though I'd be on thin ice if I pretended to understand the finer points of Marxism or Leninism or any otherism, I do know that they lead inevitably to secret police, political imprisonment, mass starvation and executions, and often and oddly enough, autocratic family dynasties. What's not to like?

What is of interest, though, is their sociological jargon for the various sectors of their supposedly classless societies, which can be mapped practically 1:1 onto the traditional terminology that is still used, generally sotto voce, in Britain (as I made a stab at above).

For aristocracy, read Party, generally Inner and Outer as anticipated in Orwell's 1984.

For upper middle class, read capitalists, generally bloated, invariably expropriated at the first opportunity though usually savvy enough to make their excuses and leave.

For Jews, read rootless cosmopolitans, utterly untrustworthy because of their intellectual and religious traditions, and financial acumen.

For middle class, read bourgeoisie, often exterminated as in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

For lower middle class, read bureaucrats and intellectuals, also exterminated in 1970's Cambodia, especially if bespectacled.

For industrial working class, read proletariat or workers. Always a Good Thing, the willing work-horses (cf Boxer in Orwell's Animal Farm) of reckless industrialisation.

For farm workers read peasantry, whose land, granted to them by Czarist reforms in Russia for example, was then confiscated by Bolshevik collectivisation.

I too was anti-monarchist in my 20's, but began to realise that republicanism involves far more disruptive changes to society than simply a change of personnel at the Palace. And as exemplified by the French and Russian revolutions, such disruptions all too frequently bring bloodshed, terror and far greater repression than before. The English Commonwealth was a grim affair too, but fortunately lasted little more than a decade. Some might point to the American Revolution as having brought nothing but good, but it was more a violent secession than a revolution, and in any case, had George Washington accepted the proffered crown, the USA would have become a monarchy too!

To my mind, evolution is always better than revolution – a touch here, a tweak there, just as Eboracus and I have built this enduring Tower of Babble.