A listener recently wrote in to ask about the word “bougie.” He’d heard it being used to mean something elevated or high-class. But he thought it came from the word “bourgeois,” meaning “middle class.”
He’s right on both counts. Here’s what we found.
First of all, “bougie” is indeed a slang form of “bourgeois.” The more formal word dates back to the 1600s and was probably used even before that.
Its root word, in turn, is “bourg,” meaning a town or large village. That word was derived from the Latin “burgus,” meaning a castle or a fortified town.
“Bourgeois” originally meant a citizen or freeman who lived in a town.
Thus, in medieval France, the term “bourgeois” meant a citizen or freeman who lived in a town, as opposed to the countryside.
These so-called freemen were part of the peasant class. They were often poor farmers who owned small plots of land and had basic civil rights.
According to the feudal class system of the time, freemen fell way below the nobility—the lords and ladies who owned land, lived in fancy manor houses, and looked after the villages.
Yet freemen fell way above slaves and serfs. Slaves were people who were bought and sold like common goods. Serfs fared little better. They couldn’t own land. They couldn’t marry or even leave the village without their lord’s consent, and they spent their days working the land owned by their lord. They were paid subsistence wages at best.
Over time, “bourgeois” came to mean anyone in the middle class.
Thus, freemen literally made up a middle class that fell between the nobility on one side, and serfs and slaves on the other. Over time, “bourgeois” came to mean anyone in this middle class—in any country, not just France.
Over yet more time, it came to refer to anyone who held what were considered middle-class values. The Oxford English Dictionary lists these as “selfish materialism, conventional respectability, and lack of imagination.” Ouch!
The term became even more pointed in the 18th century, when Marxists came along. They saw “the bourgeois” as being in direct conflict with “proletarians,” or the working-class people. The bourgeois were thought to be preoccupied with materialism and possessions, and thus supporters of capitalism.
In the 1960s, the short form of “bourgeois” — “bougie” or “bourgie”— came into use. It was used derisively, to mean someone with aspirations above their station: people who was overreaching or striving for a level of respectability they didn’t have.
“Bourgeois” can mean fancy, pretentious, label-conscious, overly-hipsterish, money-obsessed, or nouveau riche.
Today, it can mean any number of things. It can mean fancy, pretentious, label-conscious, overly-hipsterish, money-obsessed, or nouveau riche. It retains an overarching sense of people who think they’re high class, but really aren’t. An example from the venerable Urban Dictionary is someone wearing designer clothes and glasses … while sorting through their coupons at Target.
Kids these days would call that “bougie.”
So while “bourgeois” originally did simply mean “middle class,” today, it has a much more negative connotation.
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