CLASS: A Guide Through the American Status System By Paul Fussell

The New York Times had an essay today on this 1983 book.

Sandra Tsingh Loh discussed it in a 2009 Atlantic article.

Here are 88 pages of the book: fussell

Fussell writes:

…you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a rung or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic… Proletarians generally don’t mind discussions of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity…

At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people think…that education and the work you do are almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensable criteria of class…

The paying of compliments is a middle-class convention, for this class needs the assurance that compliments provide…

Upper middles like to show off their costly educations…

The prole either has his jaw set in bitterness and defiance or his mouth open in doltish wonder. The upper-middle-class male, on the other hand, has his mouth closed but not too firmly set, and his shoulders avoid the hangdog, whip-me-again-master slouch…characteristic of the unsuccessful… “Upper-middle-class people tend to have controlled precise movements. The way they use their arms and where their feet fall is dramatically different from lower-middle-class people, who tend to swing their arms out rather than hold them in closer to their bodies.”

It’s all a game to the upper-middle-class…

The middle class, always anxious about offending…

“Status panic” is the affliction of the middle class…

Terrified about losing their jobs, these people grow passive…

Because he is essentially a salesman, the middle-class man develops a salesman’s style…. He will laugh at his own jokes.

The wider the difference between one’s working clothes and one’s “best,” the lower the class.

Good looking people marry up, insecure and ugly people marry down.

Smiling is a class indicator. Lower do it more than middles who do more than uppers.

Classy people are seldom short and squat.

Having an ass that protrudes is low class. [A la Kardashians.] …as is having little neck.

The elites are thin. The fatties are low.

Princeton used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.

On What You Drink

There is hardly a richer single occasion for class revelation than the cocktail hour, since the choice of any drink, and the amount consumed, resonates with status meaning. For example: if you are a middle-aged person and you ask for white wine-the sweeter it is, by the way, the lower your host and hostess-you are giving off a very specific signal identifying yourself as upperor upper-middle class. You’re saying that of course you used to
booze a lot on expensive hard liquor, a habit mastered at a socially OK college, but that now, having been brought to the brink of alcoholism by your attractive excesses, you are bright enough to shift your style in midlife and drink something “milder.” (The reputation of dry white wine as the lowest calorically of drinks also recommends it to the thin-obsessed.) So many classy people have now forgone hard liquor that there’s a whole new large group of upper- and upper-middle-class white-wine drunks who, because they are seen to be knocking back only something light and sensible, hope that their swayings and stammerings will pass unnoticed. One of thei~ favorite tipples is Italian Soave, which is cheap, readily available, and pronounceable, while remaining foreign enough to qualify as a conspicuous import and thus a highclass item. Frascati is another favorite. Asking for Perrier (upper) or club soda (middle), while others are consuming alcohol, delivers a message similar to asking for white wine. It says: “I am grand and desirable for two reasons: first, I used to drink heavily, and thus formerly was funny, careless, adventuresome, etc.; and second, I had the sense to give it up, and am thus both intelligent and disciplined. Further, I am at the mom!:nt your social superior, because, sober, I’m watching you get drunk, and I can assure you that you are a pathetic spectacle.”

But the ultimate class bifurcation based on drink is simpler than that, and it cuts straight across the center of society, unmistakably dividing the top classes from the bottom. I’m speaking about the difference between dry and sweet. If the locution “a Seven and Seven” is strange to you, if your nose wrinkles a bit at the idea of drinking a shot of Seagram’s Seven Crown mixed with SevenUp, you are safely at or near the top, or at least not deeply
compromised by the sugar fixation of the bottom. Bourbon “and ginger” is another drink favored down there but virtually unknown higher up. Both these, like daiquiris and stinger mists, brandy Alexanders and sweet manhattans, are often consumed before dinner, suggesting that the aperitif principle is not well understood except by non-proles who have undertaken extensive, i.e., European, travels.

To a startling degree, prole America is about sweet. According to the Roper poll, 40 percent of Americans (most of them proles, of course) consume at least one cola (or similar) drink every day, and proles will hardly touch bread unless it has sugar, or honey, in it. Things seem to grow worse in the Middle West, where at bars brandy often outsells whiskey, and dry wine is very hard to come by. Actually, you could probably draw a trustworthy class
line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by a family, making allowances for the number of children in the household. Sweet alcoholic drinks are favored by the young and callow of all classes, a taste doubtless representing a transitional stage in the passage from the soda fountain to maturity. There seems something significant in the testimony of the girlfriend of Trent Lehman, the former child TV drama star who hanged himself. “He started to drink heavily, Seagram’s and Seven-Up,” she reports. “One day he was sitting in the Jacuzzi with all his clothes on, drunk.” How like a boy. A man would have been drunk on dry white wine.

Things like that would be deployed on the table at around 8:00 P.M. , the time at which the evening meal is eaten being a remarkably trustworthy indication of class, actual or hoped-for. More so, actually, than the presence or absence on the table of items like ketchup bottles or ashtrays shaped like little toilets enjoining the diners to “Put Your Butts Here.” Destitutes and bottom-outof-sights eat dinner at 5:30, for the prole staff which takes care of them wants to clean up and be out roller skating or bowling early in the evening. It eats, thus, at 6:00 or 6:30. The family of Jack and Sophie Portnoy ate at 6:00, an indication of the prole pull on them despite his having a middle-class job, barely, that of an insurance salesman. The prole dinner can be identified not just by
the time it takes place but by the time it takes to eat it. Like eight minutes from start to finish, from canned grapefruit to instant Sanka with sugar in it. Because the prole dinner is not an occasion for conversational speculation or commentary or fantasy, it can go very rapidly. It’s a mere nutritional operation, although on
ceremonial occasions like Christmas, Easter, or Passover, when you will bring out “the good paper napkins,” it may drag out a bit. And the lower your class, the more likely that your dinnertable life will take place all year long with relatives only. This is probably less the result of poverty than fear-fear of committing class solecisms. Unless you’re class-secure, you stay within what sociologists call “the kin network.”

Dining “by candlelight” and other archaistic devices for prolonging the time spent: at table are left to the middle classes and above. Candles, after all, make little sense if you’re eating in full daylight. The middle class eats at 7:00 or even 7:30, the uppermiddle at 8:00 or 8:30. Some upper-middles, uppers, and topout-of-sights dine at 9:00 or even later, after nightly protracted cocktail sessions lasting at least two hours. Sometimes they forget to eat at all. But the more decent and considerate upper-class people eat around 8:00 or close to that hour, being thoughtful enough not to require the staff to stay up till all hours· afterward. You can identify the nouveaux riches by their practice of drinking until 10:00, eating until 1:30, and dismissing the cleaners-up at

At the very top, the food is usually not very good, tending, like the conversation, to a terrible blandness, a sad lack of originality and cutting edge…. fee. Gestures towards exoticism-i.e., the foreign-enter when we
move down to the upper-middle class, the style of which is aspired to by the middle-class girl who has come to the city and whose vade mecum is The New Yorker.

* Down in the middle and prole worlds, on the other hand, the thing to drink with the evening meal is likely to be either some sort of “soda,” like Coca-Cola or ginger ale, “black raspberry” or “creme,” or, among proles, beer, almost always in the can. The middle-class fear of ideology we noticed in their home decor has its counterpart in their flight from sharp flavors in food. This is where meals are fashioned out of the bland and the soft and the
blah, and where the very mention of garlic causes the eyeballs to roll back. Even onions are used sparingly, and canned fruits (or fruit cocktail) are preferred to the real thing both because they are sweeter and because they are more tasteless. Purveyors of food to the middle class have learned from disillusioning but profitable
experience that to designate anything MILD (like cheese or mustard) is to increase volume, while to say nothing or go so far as to label it STRONG or SPICY is risky.

* Ice cream, at once both sweet and soft, is the favorite middleclass treat. And the very kind of ice cream you like has class meaning. Vanilla is at the top, with chocolate considerably below. Strawberry an~ other fruit flavors are near the bottom. In gauging the class of Edward Koch, the New York politician, you don’t have to know much more than that his favorite ice-cream flavors are chocolate and butter almond. When Arthur Penn, maker of the film Bonnie and Clyde, wanted to stigmatize that gang as a bunch of bad proles, he had them “send out” for peach
ice cream. You can imagine the whole embarrassing class situation presupposed by Carvel’s Ice Cream Cakes.

* All classes are [tourism’s] victims, but proles least of all, not so much because they can’t afford it as because they fear the new experiences they imagine it might offer. The wholly predictable is what they want, not the unexpected, and the irony is that the wholly predictable is exactly what tourism now provides. But proles are still slightly scared even of tourism. As Arthur B. Shostak says of proles in Blue-Collar Life (1969), they tend to choose experiences for their leisure “that have the power to affirm acquired wisdom rather than provide any confrontations with novel and possibly taxing matters. ” The strange can be very threatening to proles, and tourism, they think, offers numerous menaces: “One must relate to strangers, adroitly step in and out of roles,
and competently meet unexpected developments …. Fears of ‘being taken’ . . . combine … with provincial ignorance of where one might go, smugness in concluding little elsewhere is really worth visiting, and preference for the hometown version of things.” These fears tend to limit prole trips to visits with relatives or drives to relatives’ funerals. When they do take a trip, they remember it for years and dwell on its details of meals,
mileages, expenses, and motel luxuries (“They even had a strip of paper across the toilet seat”).

The touristic class is predominantly the middle, the one that has made Hawaii, as Roger Price unkindly designates it, “Roob Valhalla.” The middle is the class that makes cruise ships a profitable enterprise, for it fancies that the upper-middle class is to be mixed with on them, without realizing that that class is either peering at the minarets in Istanbul or hiding out in a valley in Nepal, or staying home in Old Lyme, Connecticut, playing backgammon and reading Town and Country. Tourism is popular with the middle class because it allows them to “buy the feeling,” as C. Wright Mills says, “if only for a short time, of higher status.” And as he points out, both cruise (or resort) staffs and their clientele cooperate in playing out the charade that really quite an
upper-middle-class (or even upper-class) operation is going forward: lots of “served meals,” white napery, “sparkling wine,” mock caviar. If you’ll notice how often, in tourist advertising, the
term luxury appears (as well as the word gourmet), you’ll see what I mean. For what the middle class most envies in the classes above is their trips abroad, ~ore than their houses, cars, or other items of local conspicuous consumption. And, as Richard P. Coleman and Lee Rainwater perceive in their book Social Standing in America (1978), the envy is more than economic-it’s “cultural”: “Cultural superiority is symbolized” by the uppers’ experiences of distant places, and the uppers’ habit of tripping “seems to say that the traveler is already comfortable in such settings or is in the process of becoming so.”

The upper class usually tours independently, without joining a group: quite natural, for in any group there would surely be some people one wouldn’t care to know. The one exception is going on an “art tour” with certified equals, often organized by one’s college and accompanied not by guides but by “lecturers” and “art historians.” Of course one’s presence on such a tour underlines one’s ignorance, intellectual laziness, and lack of curiosity
just as firmly as if one were on a normal vulgar “guided tour,” but class accrues because one is looking at art and at the same time borrowing some of the prestige associated with the choicer institutions of higher learning.

* Tennis has suffered a bit in class since the proliferation of free municipal courts, but still, at its best, it requires a handsome and expensive costume, equipment, and “lessons” and thus qualifies as an upper-middleclass enterprise at least. Knowing how to sail a boat well is so indispensable to upper-middle-class status that it can almost serve as a class division in itself. And of course racing a boat is higher than just tooling about in one. Golf is slipping a bit now as a high-status sport: today you can even overhear high proles discussing their games. But it still generally fulfills the requirements set down by Alison Lurie: “A high-status sport, by definition, is one that requires a great deal of expensive equipment or an expensive setting or both; ideally, it will use up goods and services rapidly. Golf, for instance, demands the withdrawal from cultivation, housing or commercial use of many acres of valuable land; the resulting golf course must be constantly weeded, watered, mown and rolled with high-cost machines.”

True enough. And a perfect example of Lurie’s high-class sport that uses up goods and services rapidly is skeet shooting, where a successful session is measured precisely by how many clay discs have Gone West. Although skiing has now sunk to middle-class status and even below, it began as a class sport because it was expensive, inconvenient, and practiced only in distant places. And dangerous, which meant that it was one of the sources, like today’s snowmobiles and mopeds, of the white badge of honor the plaster cast on leg or ankle worn during the winter by members of the three top classes. This white badge signifies a high degree of conspicuous waste in a social world where questions of unpayable medical bills or missed working days do not apply. One can also earn the white badge from mishaps with horses. Riding is a class sport not just because, like yachting, it’s expensive, but because it’s so archaic. It also permits you to look down on people. Lisa Birnbach has come up with a fairly sound formula for estimating the class of games played in school and college: the balls used in top-class games are generally smaller than those used in the others. Thus the superiority of golf, tennis, and squash to
football, basketball, volleyball, and baseball. And of course bowling.

* Short of watching such Anglophile exercises as cricket and polo, hard to do in this country, the most class probably attaches to watching tennis, even at the newly proletarianized-that is, modernized-Forest Hills. Watching
golf is good too, and so is watching the Americas Cup race at Newport, Rhode Island. Watching them all “live” is of course better than watching them on TV because it takes conspicuous expenditure to get there. On television, below golf comes baseball, and below that, football. Then ice hockey. Then boxing, stock-car racing, bowling, and, at the bottom, Roller Derby.

* Two motives urge middle-class and prole fans to obsession with their sports. One is their need as losers to identify with winners, the need to dance and scream “We’re number one!” while holding an index finger erect. One hockey player says: “The whole object of a pro game is to win. That is what we sell. We sell it to a lot of people who don’t win at all in their regular lives. They involve themselves with their team, a winning team.” In addition to this appeal through vicarious success, sports are popular for middles and proles to follow because they sanction a flux of pedantry, dogmatism, record-keeping, wise secret knowledge, and pseudo-scholarship of the sort usually associated with the “decision-making” or “executive” or “opinion-molding” classes. The World Series and the Super Bowl give every man his opportunity to perform as a learned bore, to play for the moment the impressive barroom pedant, to imitate for a brief season the superior classes identified by their practice of weighty utterance and informed opinion. Which is to say that the World Series and the Super Bowl constitute harmless twice-yearly opportunities occurring, oddly, near the winter and summer solstices, as if designed by Nature herself-for the plain man to garner some self-respect. They are therefore indispensable as democratic holy
days and ritual occasions. If the prole doesn’t know what might cause Union Carbide to go up or down, as a master of “the fine points of the game” he can affect to know why the Chargers or the Dodgers are going to win this time, and that’s a powerful need satisfied. The barroom or living-room debates occasioned by these events are a prole counterpart of the classy debates in statehouses and courthouses, and the shrewd weighing of evidence and thoughtful drawing of inferences ape the proceedings in the highest learned conferences and seminars. In addition, the satire and abuse visited upon holders of opposite views, especially in bars, is the prole equivalent of the contumely dispensed by the better book reviewers and theater critics.

On the Automobile You Drive

“The automobile, like the all-important domestic façade, is another mechanism for outdoor class display. Or lack of display … Class understatement describes the technique: if your money and freedom and carelessness of censure allow you to buy any kind of car, you provide yourself with the meanest and most common to indicate that you’re not taking seriously so easily purchasable and thus vulgar a class totem. You have a Chevy, Ford, Plymouth, or Dodge, and in the least interesting style and color. It may be clean, although slightly dirty at best. But it should be boring. The next best thing is to have a ‘good’ car, like a Jaguar or BMW, but to be sure it’s old and beat-up. You may not have a Rolls, a Cadillac, or a Mercedes. Especially a Mercedes, a car, Joseph Epstein reports in The American Scholar (Winter 1981-82), which the intelligent young in West Germany regard, quite correctly, as ‘a sign of high vulgarity, a car of the kind owned by Beverly Hills dentists or African cabinet ministers.’ The worst kind of upper-middle-class types own Mercedes, just as the best own elderly Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Chryslers, and perhaps jeeps and Land Rovers, the latter conveying the Preppy suggestion one of your residences is in a place so unpublic that the roads to it are not even passable by your ordinary vulgar automobile.”

On How You Speak

“Regardless of the money you’ve inherited, the danger of your job, the place you live, the way you look, the shape and surface of your driveway, the items on your front porch and in your living room, the sweetness of your drinks, the time you eat dinner, the stuff you buy from mail-order catalogs, the place you went to school and your reverence for it, and the materials you read, your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things. ‘One’s speech is an unceasingly repeated public announcement about background and social standing,’ says John Brooks, translating into modern American Ben Jonson’s observation ‘Language shows a man. Speak, that I may see thee’ … we now have something virtually unknown to Jonson, a sizable middle class desperate not to offend through language and thus addicted to such conspicuous class giveaways as euphemism, genteelism, and mock profanity.”

* State colleges and teachers colleges all over the country were suddenly denominated universities, and they set to work, with the best motives in the world, ripping off the proles.

* But those who postpone Ivy ambitions until collegeadmission time are already in class arrears, as C. Wright Mills perceives: “Harvard or Yale or Princeton is not enough. It is the really exclusive prep school that counts … ,” and unless one’s gone to Hotchkiss, Groton, Hill, St. Mark’s, Andover, Exeter, or Milton, the whole Ivy college act’s likely to be socially a waste.

* It is funny, to be sure, that Americans must depend upon the system of higher education for purposes of invidious class competitiveness. It is funny that to protect that purpose, the prestige of the upper parts of the system must be defended by such as Professor Bennett from exposure and devaluation. If these things are comic, there are other things about the system that are not at all funny. The psychological damage wrought by this incessant struggle for status is enormous just because of the extraordinary power of these institutions to confer prestige. The number of hopes blasted and hearts broken for class reasons is probably greater in the world of colleges and universities than anywhere else. And that’s true not just of students and aspirant students,
kids who aim at Columbia but get admitted to Ohio Wesleyan instead. It’s true of professors as well. I’ve never actually known a college teacher who killed himself or others because he lost status by not being retained at a “most selective” institution and had to move to a “highly selective” or merely “very selective” one. But I’ve known many college teachers thus ruined by shame and convictions of inadequacy, who thenceforth devoted their
lives to social envy and bitterness rather than wit and scholarship. Anyone who doesn’t realize that, whether for their attenders or their conductors, colleges and universities are the current equivalent of salons and levees and courts should look harder.

* The prole weeklies also offer their readers the comfort of lots of gossip about the secret lives of the celebrated. The point, like barroom pedantry about sports, is to provide the prole with an illusion of power, giving him a sense that it is he who controls the famous, or at least that it is he who determines which ones
will succeed and fail. But full as they may be of wonders and scandal, the essential function of the prole weeklies is to soothe and comfort. No one whatever, we realize, is trying to stir up the proles to rebellion…

* As readers, proles are honest, never trying to fake effects or simulate interest in higher things. It’s among the middle class that tastes in reading get really interesting, because it’s only here that pretense, fraud, and I)lisrepresentation enter. The uppers don’t care what you think about their reading, and neither do the proles. The poor anxious middle class is the one that wants you to believe it reads “the best literature,” and condemnatory expressions like trash or rubbish are often on its lips. It is the natural audience for the unreadable second-rate pretentious, books by James Gould Cozzens, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Lawrence
Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the mass merchandise of Herman Wouk, John Hersey, and Irwin Shaw, a~d the Durants’ history of philosophy. A middle classic to perfection is The Old Man and the Sea, which Hemingway virtually was obliged to write, Thornton Wilder having stopped producing and thus leaving a gap to be filled. The middle class is mad for Dylan ThomasJimmy Carter deposed that he was his favorite poet-in large part because the records of his readings de-ideologize the poems, transforming them into something like stereo music. It is in the middle-class dwelling that you’re likely to spot the fifty-fourvolume set of the Great Books, together with the half-witted
two-volume Syntopicon, because the middles, the great audience for how-to books, believe in authorities. Thus it serves as the classic market for encyclopedias. Displayed in the maple wall hutch along with the collectibles will be the most recent transmissions from the Book-of-the-Month Club (the Literary Guild, if you went to a worse college; volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books if you didn’t go at all).
Naturally the middle class is addicted to nonideological periodicals, nice ones like the National Geographic, Smithsonian, and House & Garden. National Geographic also offers the middle class the upper-middle-class fantasy of sending a refractory, dope-sodden son away to one of the expensive military schools or disciplinary camps advertised in the back pages. Psychology Today gives the middle class the illusion that it has up-to-date scientific interests, and The New Yorker persuades it that it cares about culture and the finer things, like Steuben glass. Where proles would read Popular Mechanics, the middle class, having graduated from college, goes in for Science Digest. The more liberal a member of the middle class imagines himself, the more likely that
Consumer Reports will be displayed somewhere.

We must not leave the topic of the reading of the middle class without noting the impact of its audienceship on American prose style. Its terror of ideology, opinion, and sharp meaning, which we’ve seen before in its visual tastes, are the main cause of the euphemism, jargon, gentility, and verbal slop that wash over us. The middle-class anxiety about the “controversial” is the reason The New Yorker rarely runs unfavorable book reviews: too upsetting to the clientele, the way piquant, pointed prose might be. Better for language first to ingratiate and finally, by waffling, vagueness, and evasion, to stay out of trouble altogether. The prose demanded by the middle class is preeminently that of institutional advertising, and it’s manufactured by the most cunning corporations to imitate the faux-naif sound of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” … the indispensability of cliche to middle-class understanding. Where the more fortunately educated read to be surprised, the middle class reads to have its notions confirmed, and deviations from customary verbal formulas disconcert and annoy it.

* The two top classes, as we’ve seen, have very few ideas. One of the few is that capital must never be “invaded,” as it likes to put it. Another is that a jacket and tie are never to be omitted. But other than those, it has no very extensive stock of beliefs. It doesn’t even believe in culture, like the upper-middle class… believes in constipation, for example, holding that if you don’t “have a bowel movement” daily, you’re in deep trouble and should immediately swallow a “laxative,” preferably one advertised on TV. Just as it hopes to fend off criticism by keeping its kitchens spotlessly clean, so does the middle class with its bowels, lest some shameful dirtiness be inferred. ”I’m studying colon therapy,” one young woman told Studs Terkel: “our system isn’t clean.” Other middle-class beliefs are that one ought to be a professional at all costs, because being a dentist or a vet is nobler than being a salaried employee; that nothing wears like leather; that you are judged by your luggage; and that you should dress up for traveling. It believes that Peter Shaffer is a profound playwright, probably the equal of Shakespeare (the way Durrell is the equal of “Prowst”) , and it’s likely to stand and applaud at the end
of the psychiatrist’s speech in Equus. It holds architectural views, and thinks the opera house at Lincoln Center beautiful, what with all the gold and crimson and little lights. (Brief examination in passing: are you sent to an extraordinary degree by the cuckoo in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony? Then you’re middle-class.) It believes that an “air terminal” is higher in class than a bus station, and its commitment to the imagery of efficiency and progress leads it to believe that a household or personal computer will solve its problems. (That’s a middle-class version of the prole belief in “debt consolidation.”) This middle-class belief in electronic solutions of human problems is celebrated in a very plausible TV ad depicting a father announcing at his daughter’s wedding that he’s giving her a Betamax as a present. This strikes the audience-clearly middle-class-as immensely sensible…

Proles being more interesting than the middle class in almost every way, we’d expect their beliefs to be too. What middle-class person would hold the colorful belief that objects dreamed about have meanings ascertainable in a Dream Sign Book? Or that a copper bracelet will repel arthritis? Or that one has quite a good chance to win lots of money betting on horse races? Or that the authorities introduce bromide into servicemen’s food to repress
lust? Or that Laetrile will arrest cancer? Or that the concept Creation Science involves no oxymoron? Or that it’s open to anyone to make a killing by “inventing” something, “an antigravity belt or something like that,” as a Manhattan bellhop was once heard to say? Or that cripples and the deformed are really “reincarns,” being punished this time around for misdemeanors committed in a previous life? Or that Esperanto is the solution to the world’s
misunderstandings? Or that there’s nothing funny about the designation “Ladies’ Auxiliary,” when associated with the Elks, or the American Legion, or the Ancient Order of Hibernians? Or nothing comic, or even odd, about a tennis tournament called the Congoleum Classic? Where the middle-class heart leaps up when solicited by an ad for hideous jewelry from Tiffany, the prole responds with equal joy. and hope to ads promising to alleviate
rectal itch or promoting a book on poker which will earn the purchaser “a Guaranteed Income for Life.” But it’s primarily in its bent toward superstition that the prole mind differs from the middle-class version. It’s largely in deference to prole sensibilities that buildings have no thirteenth floor and that thirteen is skipped over when racing cars are numbered. Indeed, numbers are much in the minds of proles, just as larger numbers (with dollar signs attached) are much in the minds of the upper- and upper-middle classes: sports scores with significant meanings, lucky numbers, lottery numbers. At an airport recently I was in line at a newsstand behind a prole whose wife was standing some distance away. His purchases of a magazine and “gum” amounting to S2.65, he shouted to her, rather hoping all would hear and thus identify him as a dashing sport, “Remember sixty-five for the [lottery] number!” Proles read horoscopes avidly and take regular astrological advice. They believe that winning and losing “streaks” are actual and self-propelling, and they believe in gambling systems. Believing that supernatural intervention will help locate lost objects, they insert newspaper classifieds thanking St. Anthony for his help. They believe in heaven.

But it’s kinder not to probe too deeply into such things. Better to be warned off by the high-school boy in the Middle West who told an inquiring sociologist, “Yeah, we smoke dope all over, in our cars, walking around before class, anytime, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in God or that we’ll let anybody put God down.”

* Probably the most important, a usage firmly dividing the prole classes from the middles and highers, is the double negative, as in “I can’t get no satisfaction.” You’re as unlikely to hear something like that in a boardroom or premises frequented by “houseguests,” or on a sixty-five-foot schooner off Nantucket, as you
are likely to hear it in a barracks, an auto-repair shop, or a workmen’s bar. Next in importance would rank special ways of managing grammatical number, as in “He don’t” and “I wants it.” And these are not just “slips” or “errors.” They signal virtually a different dialect, identifying speakers socially distinct from users of the other English. The two can respect each other, but they can never be pals. They belong to different classes, and if they attempt to mix, they will inevitably regard each other as quaint and not quite human. If it’s grammar that draws the line between middles and below, it’s largely pronunciation and vocabulary that draw it between
middles and above.

* No prole man would call something super (Anglophilic) or outstanding (prep school), just as it would sound like flagrant affectation for a prole woman to designate something seen in a store as divine or darling or adorable. Nice would be the non-upper way of putting it.

* So terrified of being judged socially insignificant is your typical member of the middle class, so ambitious of earning a reputation as a judicious thinker, indeed, almost an “executive,” that it’s virtually impossible for him to resist the temptation constantly to multiply syllables. He thus euphemizes willy-nilly.

* Proles of all types have terrible trouble with the apostrophe, and its final disappearance from English, which seems imminent, will be a powerful indication that the proles have won.

* If unexpected silence is one sign of the upper classes (necessary, for example, as Nancy Mitford notes, after someone has said, on departing, “It was so nice seeing you”), noise and vociferation identify the proles, who shout “Wahoo!” at triumphant moments in games (largely hockey and pro football) they attend.

* If each class has one word it responds to uniquely, the upper class probably likes secure or liquid best. The word of the uppermiddle class is right, as in doing the right thing: “I do want everything right for Muffy’s wedding.” The middle class likes right too, but the word that really excites the middles is luxury (“Those beautiful luxury one-room apartments”). Spotless (600rs, linens, bowels, etc.) is also a middle-class favorite. High proles are suckers for easy-easy terms, six easy lessons. And the word of the classes below isfree: “We never go to anything that’s not free,” as the low-prole housewife said.

* A virtually bottomless social gulf opens between those who say “Have a nice day” and those who say, on the other hand, “Goodbye,” those who when introduced say “Pleased to meet you” and those who say “How do you do?” There may be some passing intimacy between those who think momentarily means in a moment (airline captain over loudspeaker: “We’ll be taking off momentarily, folks”) and those who know it means for a moment, but it won’t survive much strain. It’s like the tenuous relation between people who conceive that type is an adjective (“She’s a very classy type person”) and people who know it’s only a noun or verb. The sad thing is that by the time one’s an adult, these stigmata are virtually unalterable and ineffaceable. We’re pretty well stuck for life in the class we’re raised in. Even adopting all the suggestions implied in this chapter, embracing all the high-class locutions and
abjuring the low ones, won’t help much.

* The difficulty of changing class deters the millions trying to ascend as little as the thousands trying to sink, and it would be sad to calculate the energy wasted in both pursuits. “Strainers” rather than “climbers” is the name the sociologist August B. Hollingshead gives those who try to move upward without in any way making it. Among the strainers, we can gather, are the clients of Rozanne Weissman, a Washington, D.C., status therapist, who
instructs the ambitious there in the technique of social climbing. She advises aspirants to get their names into local gossip columns with the expectation that invitations to embassy parties will ensue. That is pitiable, embassy parties being close to the very social bottom. Outright lying is sometimes useful, if only temporarily, to the class climber. One janitor says: “When you meet somebody at a party they ask, ‘What do you do?’ I bullshit them. I tell ’em anything …. ‘I’m a CPA.'” Some of the most assiduous class climbers are university professors.

* If social climbing, whether in actuality or in fantasy, is well understood, social sinking is not, although there’s more of it going on than most people notice. Male homosexuals and lesbians, respectively, exemplify these two opposite maneuvers. Ambitious male homosexuals, at least in fantasy, aspire to rise, and from humble origins to ascend to the ownership of antique businesses, art galleries, and hair salons. The object is to end by
frequenting the Great. They learn to affect elegant telephone voices and gravitate instinctively toward ” style” and the grand. Lesbians, on the contrary, like to sink, dropping from middleclass status to become t’axi drivers, police officers, and construction workers. The ultimate male-homosexual social dream is to sit at an elegant dinner table, complete with flowers and doilies and finger bowls, surrounded by rich, successful, superbly suited
and gowned, witty, and cleverly immoral people. The ultimate lesbian social dream is to pack it in at some matey lunch counter with the heftier proles, wearing work clothes and doing a lot of shouting and kidding.

* In a melancholy sense, the whole society could be said to be engaged in a process of class sinking. Prole Drift, we can call it, a term that will suggest the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized. Prole drift seems an inevitable attendant of mass production, mass
selling, mass communication, and mass education, and some of its symptoms are best-seller lists, films that must appeal to virtually everyone (except the intelligent, sensitive, and subtle), shopping malls, and the lemming flight to the intellectual and cultural emptiness of the Sun Belt. Prole drift is another term for what Blumberg calls the Howard Johnsonization of America. “The characteristic of the hour,” says Ortega y Gasset in The
Revolt of the Masses (1930), “is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” As a result of this process, the wine of life, as Donald Barthelme notes, turns into Gatorade, a redaction for a later time of Ezra Pound’s earlier observation that the pianola is rapidly replacing Sappho’s barbitos. Prole drift is what they’re all talking
about. Evidence of prole drift is everywhere. Look at magazines and newspapers. Serious historical students of prole drift would find significant the disappearance during the 1940s of the table of contents from the front cover of The Atlantic and its replacement by a “picture.” Why did this happen? A close critic could infer only
that the former audience for language was dying off or going blind with senility and not at all being reconstituted in the old way by the newly educated. More evidence of prole drift is to be found by looking at newspaper features. The anthropologist Marcello Truzzi, examining this country’s newspapers in 1972, found
that while twenty years earlier only about 100 of the 1,750 daily papers carried astrological columns, now 1,200 did. Or look at the ads in The New Republic, formerly a magazine whose audience was thought, even by advertisers, to consist of liberals, skeptics, atheists, intellectuals, and programmatic nay-sayers.

William Briggs writes:

Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.

A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.

Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.

Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.

If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading

Handmade by Gertrude Willis

she’s middle-class. If the label reads

Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis

she’s high-prole.

Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better…

Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.

Kate Fox writes in her book Watching the English: “The lower ranks may drop their consonants, but the upper class are equally guilty of dropping their vowels.”

“Ideally, the English male would rather not issue any definite invitation at all, sexual or social, preferring to achieve his goal through a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres, often so understated to be almost undetectable. This “uncertainty” principle has a number of advantages: the English male is not required to exhibit any emotions…”

“…[T]he Church of England is the least religious church on Earth. It is notoriously woolly-minded, tolerant to a fault and amiably non-prescriptive.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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