Thursday, October 24, 2013

Prejudice Lives

Prejudice Lives

In last week’s post I mentioned my fascination with a prejudice we English speakers appear to have. Indulge me by considering each set of four synonyms, then speedily categorizing them into two lists, one labeled “classy” & one labeled “not classy.”

big                   large                  vast                great 

compact          miniature          little                small             

thin                  slender             gaunt              skinny          

chubby            stout                 fat                   obese                       

clever              astute                smart             intelligent                 

Next, compare your lists with these:

big                                         vast
great                                      large
small                                     compact
little                                       miniature
skinny                                   slender
thin                                        gaunt
chubby                                  stout
fat                                          obese
clever                                    astute
smart                                     intelligent

The words on the left are words derived from Norse, Frisian, Dutch, and various Germanic sources. The words on the right mostly come through French from Latin, though one comes directly from Latin, one is Latin through Italian and stout is a Middle Low German word that came to English through French (that last stage being salient to this topic).        

If you placed most of the words on the left in the “not classy” column and most of the words on the right in the “classy” column, like me, you have absorbed a prejudice that linguists attribute to the events following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the big win, the Norman nobles who supported William the Conqueror (formerly known as Guillaume, since he was born in Normandy, France) became the ruling class of England. French became the language of the courts and royalty. This set French and its mother language, Latin, far above the everyday Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Celtic tongues spoken by the lowly peasants. This system lasted for centuries, as have the prejudices born of it.

This prejudice has some intriguing applications for those who write. Precise application of classy vs. non-classy words can subtly influence readers’ impressions of characters & events, encouraging or discouraging trust or likability.

Dang, those authors are tricky cusses, aren’t they?

Please let me know whether any of this rings true. Did your lists look mostly like my lists or am I just some nutcase who puts too much time into thinking about words?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, &, &  Etymonline.


  1. My list was indeed predominantly on the right! "Chubby", "great", and "clever" were my exceptions; I've always been fond of the word "clever."

    I've known the importance of word choice for some time, since I write; I didn't realize where it gained that importance!

  2. My lists were identical to yours, with the exception being the word "clever." Matt's list was entirely different because he was thinking of the words as descriptors rather than judging their class level. However, he's an architect not a writer so that makes sense :)

  3. Hey Rachel6 & Heather,
    Thanks to both of you for coming by. The architect vs. writer thoughts are intriguing, & clever is particularly intriguing. I've always wondered whether the more conniving connotation was a reflection on this prejudice, but I don't have a clue how to research something so subtle.

  4. That is fascinating. The only one that was different for me was "great" and "large". Never knew I was a common word snob. I wonder if the French are aware of this phenomenon.

  5. Those pesky Normans. It's because of them that we eat "pork" (Fr word) while farmers raise a "pig" (Anglo-Saxon word) Ditto "beef" vs. "cow." Fascinating discussion from the ever-classy Wordmonger!

  6. Greetings Anne,
    Perfect! I should do a post on prejudice in food names. Thanks for popping by.