Word of the Week, 11/21-11/26/11 — nouveau riche

Nouveau riche

new rich (French)

Trade and economic growth have led to shifting fortunes between the social classes since the earliest civilizations, but during the Industrial Revolution the British borrowed the French term for those with newly acquired wealth who were breaking into aristocratic social circles for the first time.  It was used as it is today, as a derogatory term, laden with the suggestion that as the beneficiaries of new money rather than old, the “nouveau riche” would lack the taste and breeding to know how to use their wealth wisely and discreetly.

I’m sorry, darling, but we really can’t go for dinner with the new neighbors; those big china bulldogs in their driveway are so painfully nouveau riche.

~ Chloe Rhodes, A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”,

The Origin of Foreign Used in English

Chloe Rhodes traces the origins of the English usage of the term to the Industrial Revolution.  Often, in my experience, the focus of the Industrial Revolution is on the workers movements–which are certainly relevant–but, it created another interesting effect in the UK as well.  While many workers shifted from crafts to lesser-paid factory work, factory owners and manufactures of mass-produced products changed the economy and created a new middle class that was wealthy, but untitled, without noble status.  As the economy shifted to manufacturing, the nobility that resisted the new economic factors were soon out-stripped by the successful merchant class.

The new situation in Britain’s economics created a real rub between the landed gentry and the successful businessmen and investors.  Once nobility did not come with a separation of wealth, and in fact sometimes led eventually to poverty, in conjunction with the workers movements Britain turned a new corner in its history.

Similarly, in the American South, with the decline of the plantation economy, a similar economic development and shift took place.  The term was applied liberally in southern America as manufacturing began to unseat the “landed gentry” of the Old South.

The term is a derogatory label for new-monied wealth, with an understanding of gauche and extravagant taste.  The idea here is that the nouveau riche are tasteless and the implication is that they lack the ability and knowledge to know how to use the wealth.  Why?  Because, the nouveau riche climbed to the summit as opposed to being born on the summit.  It is not difficult to see that the resentment for those climbing their way to the summit is in part their capability to retain the summit while the environment changes, while those born on the summit seem caught in the twilight of diminishing relevance and ability.  The nouveau riche threaten to expose the noble class as relics, especially in the early modern economy.

On the other hand, there was also a dismay at diminishing manners and morals.  Particularly in Britain, the rise of the nouveau riche signaled concern for an eventual loss of the morality that the nobility was responsible for safeguarding in society–how closely that perception represented reality is open for interpretation, but it was only in the development of philanthropic enterprises that the nouveau riche was able to mimic the former responsibility of the landed nobility to its extended household and community.


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