These Derivations Are on the Money

Rob Kyff on

"The rich are different from us," F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway.

"Yes," Hemingway is said to have replied. "They have more money." And he might have added, "and more monikers."

But where did our many terms for the wealthy originate?

The one percent -- Using a number to refer to disparities in economic status surfaced as early as colonial times. In 1765, a letter published in the New York Gazette asked: "Is it equitable that 99 ... should suffer for the Extravagance or Grandeur of one?"

By the mid-20th century, the use of "the 99 percent" and "the one percent" was widespread. In 1940, George Orwell complained that aristocrats were oblivious to "the other 99 percent of the population," and in 1947, Aldous Huxley referred to "the one percent ... who call the tune."

The popularity of the phrase was propelled both by Jamie Johnson's 2006 film "The One Percent," a documentary about the growing wealth gap in the U.S., and by the adoption of the term by the Occupy Wall Street Movement during the early 2010s.

Upper crust -- The common folk etymology for this term -- that refers to the upper portion of a bread loaf's crust reserved for the aristocrats -- is half-baked.

In fact, the term is simply a metaphorical extension of the "crust" that means "an outer or upper surface or level," as in "pie crust." So the "upper crust" is the top layer of society.


Plutocrats/Plutocracy -- In ancient Greek, "plutous" meant "wealth," and the suffix "-cracy" meant "power," so the English word for "rule by the wealthy" was "plutocracy."

Because riches, such as gold and silver, came from beneath the ground (instead of from hedge funds and derivatives), the Romans named their god of the underworld realm "Pluto."

By contrast, "oligarchy," from the Greek "oligos" (few), means "rule by a small number of people," and "kleptocracy," from the Greek kleptes (thief, cheater) means "government by rulers who enrich themselves at the expense of the people."

Blue bloods -- The light-complexioned families of Castile in Spain were very proud of their "pure" ancestry. To prove that they had no foreign blood, they would point to the "sangre azul" (blue blood) that was especially visible in their veins because of its contrast with their white skin.

During the 1830s, the Spanish term "sangre azul" entered English as "blue blood," meaning a person of nobility or wealth. The long-running TV series "Blue Bloods" about a family of police officers has kept this term in "circulation."


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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