(See also SUBORDINATION.)
above the salt Among the distinguished or honored guests at a dinner; of high rank, important; also the opposite below the salt. Formerly a large saltcellar, i.e., a salt shaker or mill, was customarily placed in the middle of dining tables. The higher-ranking guests were seated at the upper or master’s end of the table, above the salt, while those of lesser rank were seated at the lower end of the table, below the salt. The phrase has been in use since the late 16th century.
Though of Tory sentiments, she by no means approved of those feudal times when the chaplain was placed below the salt. (James Payn, The Luck of the Darrells, 1885)
blueblood An aristocrat or noble; a thoroughbred. Fair-skinned Spaniards prided themselves on their pure stock, without Moorish or Jewish admixture. Their extremely light complexions revealed a bluish cast to their veins, which they consequently believed carried blue blood, as opposed to the supposed black blood of Moors and Jews.
bluestocking See SCHOLARLINESS.
born in the purple Of royal or exalted birth. Purple has long been associated with royalty because of its former scarcity and consequent costliness. It was obtainable only by processing huge quantities of a certain mollusk, which was harvested at Tyre, an ancient seaport of Phoenicia, and was called Tyrian purple. Born in the purple is a literal translation of Porphyrogenitus, a surname of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII (905-959) and his successors, most accurately applied only to those born during their father’s reign; it was customary for the Empress to undergo childbirth in a room whose walls were lined with purple. Today born to the purple is more commonly heard.
born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth Born to wealth and high station. It was formerly customary for godparents to give spoons as christening gifts. The child born to wealth could anticipate a silver one from the moment of his birth.
born within the sound of Bow bells A British expression denoting a Londoner, especially of the lower classes; a native of the East End district; a Cockney. The church of St. Mary-le-Bow, so called because of the bows or arches that supported its steeple, was known for the peal of its bells, which could be heard throughout the city. The phrase has been used to denote a Cockney since the early 17th century.
brown-bagger A person of inferior status or social standing. In the United States, the term derives from the practice of the less well-to-do, such as blue-collar workers, to carry their lunches in brown paper bags. In Britain, a brown-bagger is a nonresident student at public school or university; his brown bag is the attaché case in which he carries his books. Such students are usually looked upon with a degree of disdain or condescension by those in residence.
chief cook and bottle washer See PERSONAGE.
codfish aristocracy A disparaging appellation for the nouveau riche, originally those Massachusetts aristocrats who made their money from the codfishing industry; also the codfish gentility. This expression, which dates from 1849, was the title of a poem written in the 1920s by American journalist Wallace Irwin. The first stanza reads as follows:
Of all the fish that swim or swish
In ocean’s deep autocracy,
There’s none possess such
As the codfish aristocracy.
the Four Hundred The social elite; the wealthy, refined people generally regarded as “high society.” This term dates from 1889 when Ward McAllister, a prominent New York socialite, was given the task of deciding who should be invited to a centenary celebration of the inauguration of George Washington. His list included the names of four hundred people whom he considered to be the true elite, the crème de la crème, as it were. Although the list received rapid acceptance and the term the Four Hundred became an overnight sensation, the number was raised to eight hundred in 1904 by Mrs. William Astor, the grande dame of New York society.
To social strivers she is the Queen of the 400. (Coronet, August, 1948)
gallery gods Those members of a theater audience occupying the highest, and therefore the cheapest, seats; those persons sitting in the balcony or gallery of a theater. The OED attributes this expression to the fact that persons occupying gallery seats are on high, as are the gods. However, another source credits the painting on the ceiling over the gallery in London’s Drury Lane Theatre as the inspiration for this expression. The ceiling in question is painted to resemble a cloudy blue sky peopled by numerous flying cupids. Thus, it is in reference to the cupids painted on the ceiling above their heads that persons sitting in the gallery first became known as gods or gallery gods. The term dates from the latter half of the 18th century.
gentleman of the four outs A man without manners, wit, money, or credit —the four marks of a true gentleman. This subtle expression used by Englishmen to denote an upstart has been in use at least since the late 18th century. Sometimes the expression varies according to whether the “essentials” are considered more or less than four in number.
A gentleman of three outs—“out of pocket, out of elbows, and out of credit.” (Edward Lytton, Paul Clifford, 1830)
grass roots The common people, the working class; the rank and file of a political party; the voters. At the beginning of this century the term was used to mean ‘source or origin,’ the fundamental or basic level of any thing. This figurative extension of literal grass roots later acquired the political dimension denoting the people of rural or agricultural sections of the country as a factional, economic, or social group. Finally, grass roots was extended to include not just farmers and inhabitants of rural areas but the common people in general, or the rank and file of a political party or social organization.
“No crisis so grave has confronted our people” since the Civil War, Mr. Lowden told the grassroots convention at Springfield. (Nation, June, 1935)
the great unwashed The general public, the masses; hoi polloi. Although its coinage has been attributed to Edmund Burke (1729-97), this phrase has been in print only since the early 19th century.
Gentlemen, there can be but little doubt that your ancestors were the Great Unwashed. (William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Pendennis, 1850)
low man on the totem pole The lowest in rank, the least important or experienced person; a neophyte. A totem pole is a tree trunk with symbolic carvings or paintings one above the other. North American Indians placed such poles in front of their houses. The apparent hierarchical arrangement of the symbols may have given rise to the current meaning of totem pole, which retains only the idea of ‘hierarchy.’ Thus, the low man on the totem pole refers to one who is at the bottom in the ordering of rank. Its popularity is undoubtedly partly owing to a comic novel, Low Man on the Totem Pole, by humorist H. Allen Smith. The following citation from Webster’s Third shows the corresponding use of the phrase for one of superior rank:
… entertain top men on the political totem pole. (Mary Thayer)
pecking order Hierarchy; the levels of authority within a group of people or an organization; one’s relative degree of predominance, aggressiveness, or power in comparison to others. This expression alludes to dominance hierarchy—a zoological term for the instinctive vertical ranking among birds and social mammals, in which the stronger animals assert their dominance over the smaller, weaker ones. Among domestic fowl, particularly chickens, the hierarchy becomes virtually uncontested; thus, the bird highest on the barnyard totem pole can peck at the dominated without worry of retaliation. Hence, avian dominance hierarchy came to be known as pecking order and, by extension, pecking order developed its figurative application to the hierarchy of authority and domination in human affairs.
ragtag and bobtail The rabble, the riffraff, the masses; also, everyone collectively, the whole lot, every man Jack, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. The term, of British origin, was originally tag, then tag and rag; later the two words were reversed; still later the addition of bobtail (credited by some to Samuel Pepys) completed the term as we know it. Its component words all relate to worthless shreds, tatters, remnants, etc. The expression is sometimes extended to indicate comprehensiveness—every last one—as it was in this passage from T. A. Trollope’s What I Remember (1887):
He shall have them all, rag, tag, and bobtail.
the rank and file The general membership of an organization, as distinct from its leaders or officers; the lower echelons; the common people in general, hoi polloi. The origin of the term is military, rank and file being used to denote common soldiers (privates and corporals as opposed to commissioned officers) since the 18th century; for these were the men commonly required to line up in such formation: rank ‘a number of soldiers drawn up in line abreast’; file ’the number of men constituting the depth from front to rear of a formation in line’ (OED). By the 19th century the term was popular in government and political circles, as it still is today.
One of the mere rank and file of the party. (John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1860)
run-of-the-mill Average, common, routine; mediocre, ordinary, no great shakes. This commonly used adjective is derived from its application to lots of manufactured goods which have not been inspected and consequently not sorted and graded for quality. By extension the term describes persons lacking in originality or individuality, those who through blandness blend in with the masses.
salt of the earth A person or group of persons epitomizing the best, most noble, and most admirable elements of society; a paragon; the wealthy aristocracy. For centuries, salt has been used in religious ceremonies as a symbol of goodness, purity, and incorruptibility. Thus, it was praise of the highest order when, after preaching the Beatitudes at the Sermon on the Mount, Christ called His disciples the “salt of the earth.”
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men. (Matthew 5:13)
top billing Stardom. A phrase describing the most prominent or important in a group of persons, events, etc. In theater advertisements and billboards, billing is the relative position in which a person or act is listed. “Top billing,” then, is the most prominent position, usually above the name of the play, and is reserved for an actor or actress who has attained stardom, one whose name is readily recognized by the public.
He made his Broadway debut as Lancelot in Camelot, with billing below the title; now, he is returning to Broadway, with top billing. (Globe ù Mail [Toronto], January 13, 1968)
Although still most commonly used in reference to the theater, the scope of top billing has been expanded to include application in other contexts as well.
top-drawer See EXCELLENCE.
top-shelf See EXCELLENCE.
to the manner born Destined by birth to observe certain patterns of behavior, usually those associated with good breeding and high social status; also, innately or peculiarly suited for a particular position. This latter use is becoming increasingly common. One “to the manner born” is a “natural” with an instinctive ability in a given area. The former meaning is still the more accurate, however. Shakespeare’s Hamlet gave us the expression when he criticized Claudius’ and Denmark’s drinking customs:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance. (I, iv)
upper crust The highest social stratum; the wealthy; the aristocracy. This expression originated from the former custom of serving the upper crust of a loaf of bread to the most distinguished guests. As used today, the phrase often carries a suggestion of snobbery.
He took a fashionable house and hobnobbed lavishly with Washington’s tight-ringed upper crust. (Newsweek, July, 1946)
Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, 1st Edition. © 1980 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.