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Social Justice Synonyms #3: “Classy” and “Poor”

Welcome to the third segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that encourages inclusive, peaceful dialogue, and discourages oppressive and discriminatory language.

Today’s words are classy and poor.

Classy may seem innocuous at first. We compliment our friends for looking classy when they are dressed up. We attach the word “classy” to certain interior designs of coffee shops, restaurants, bars. What we deem as “classy” is often based on the aesthetics of high income. So when you call your friend “classy,” you are saying, “You look like a rich person. Being a poor person is undesirable.”

This denigrates low-income and working class people. “Classy” attire distinguishes the wearer from someone who cannot afford to own it. It’s a zero-sum game. This is not a controversial interpretation, but its implications often slip under the radar. Both in its modern usage and its etymological roots, the word “classy” celebrates a display of class status and high income.

We also frequently commend someone on their “classiness” for being polite, observing social customs, or being punctual. Historically, etiquette has been used to draw class divisions between different racial groups, cultures, genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic groups.

We cannot extract discussions of “classiness” from discussions of economic class. The two are intricately linked.

This is the same for the word poor, which conflates performing inadequately with being from a lower income bracket. The implications of mixing these two definitions is striking. Do we really want to imply that not having money is an indication that someone is of inferior quality? Under the current capitalist paradigm, the idea that all accomplishments are ‘merit-based’ (“meritocracy”), hides structural oppressions and marginalizes minority groups. The reality is that monetary success is more frequently associated with favoritism to family and friends (nepotism, cronyism) and positionality. If hard work was truly rewarded by capitalism, single mothers would be rich. When we use the word “poor” to mean “bad”, we’re enforcing that oppressive ideology. 

Use/context Alternatives
“You’re a class act.” “You’re really on the ball tonight.”
“You are charming.”
“You’re nice.”
“I went to a classy bar last night” “I went to a bourgeois bar last night.”
“I went to an upper middle class bar last night”
“I went to an expensive bar last night”
“You look classy tonight.” “You’re looking fashionable tonight.”
“You look like an elegant swan.”
“That’s a tasteful outfit. Good job.”
“It looks like you put a lot of effort in.”
“You look nice.”
“They did poorly.” “They didn’t do well.”
“They failed to meet expectations.”
“They performed inadequately.”

It’s also considered impolite, or not “classy”, to talk about money and wages. It is clear who benefits from this. The upper class would rather not talk about income disparity because they benefit from the invisibility of unequal wages. So, in addition to staying mindful about your language, talk about class. Talk about wages. Talk about money. If we are to subvert the classism inherent in our language, we’re going to have to start those conversations.

Note: A previous version of this article contained the word “capable”. We have taken this out because of its ableist connotations and we apologize for this oversight.

If you have any word suggestions for future weeks, feel free to contact us at talonubc@gmail.com with the headline: Suggestion for Social Justice Synonyms. Looking forward to hearing from you!

  • graham

    kvetching about language distracts attention and wastes energy which could be put towards real activism and class warfare

    • Shawn Vulliez

      Hello! I agree that optimizing language is no replacement for ongoing activism, and that changing the words we use will not protect working class people from exploitation.

      However, I have problems with your comment which I want to outline and address.

      Your phrasing “distracts time and wastes energy” implies that discussing the issue of the implications of language somehow takes away time from agitating against income disparity. This is a zero-sum fallacy. It’s not a contradiction to both do activism and discuss semantics. The two actually lean on one another.

      A rhetorical question: which does more to help “real activism and class warfare” – Writing articles about the classism inherent in language or writing dismissive comments on articles about the classism inherent in language? 🙂

      I also have to take objection to the broad implication that language doesn’t matter. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the way that we interpret reality is biased through the framing of our language, and I tend to agree with this assessment. Our thoughts are influenced by the words that comprise our thoughts.

      http://edge.org/conversation/how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think

      • techedgeek

        I wanted to point out that strong linguistic relativity (i.e., linguistic determinism) has been almost universally rejected by linguistics. Weak linguistic relativity (i.e., language influences thought) may have some empirical evidence to support it, but the conclusion of the studies supporting relativity remain highly contested.

        I understand you agree with linguistic relativism. I also realize that linguistic relativism provides one of the key tenets of poststructuralism, but I think caution towards only tentatively accepting it would be wise.

    • Swaq Forevur

      Politely disagree. The way we employ language reflects our values. For instance the saying, “that’s so gay” is used in a negative way. For straight people, it might not mean anything. It’s just a harmless saying used every day. But for gays, it reflects society’s unaccepting views towards them. You can volunteer at a facility that helps gay teens that have been kicked out of their houses but not talking about sayings that make people look at gays negatively fails to address another large part of the problem. We need to talk about language and littler sayings in order to detach stigmas society attaches to certain groups.

  • Shana

    I enjoy using posh in place of classy. It’s a fun word and makes people smile.
    However some of your alternatives I have issues with.
    Saying, “I went to a expensive bar last night” puts the speaker in a bit of a negative position. The word expensive is associated with negative class stereotype much like the ones you are trying to dissuade the use of. These negative stereotypes portray the upper class as pompous, entitled, and exude a holier-than-thou attitude that is quite destructive to those born into those positions. The word is also associated with exclusivity, separating the speaker from those they are speaking to.
    I tend to think of the word classy as more inclusive than expensive and also less fraught with negative stereotypes in everyday usage.
    Bourgeois is in a similar boat to expensive. It’s getting unfortunately close to a history of negative stereotypes equating wealth and Francophiles. Not only that but there is the entire usage of the word in relation to the French Revolution that is problematic.
    Once again I tend to think of classy as less exclusive and it doesn’t have the issue of appropriation around it that bourgeois does.

    Anyway just my two cents, I agree it is a problematic word, however a bit more thought about alternatives might also be in order and they seem to be problematic from my viewpoint as well.

    I quite agree on the word poor however. When we use it to mean bad, honestly we really should just use bad. i.e. “You did poorly” should be “You did badly”.

  • Fastener

    Yo, re: classy, like, as much as it is ~linked to class~, I don’t know that it’s necessarily used in a way that’s harmful. Where’s the harm if someone compliments me for how I look “classy” today, knowing that I actually come from fairly modest means, and that my having learned to navigate class signifiers is actually a pretty big deal for me?

    If you’re worried about class, worry about Sauder’s literal dress code, not a couple of middle-class first years with limited vocabularies. Or, y’know, focus on the eventual overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Whatever you’re in to.