Q: My friend and I were having an argument about the word “class.” She says it’s superficial and exclusionary, referring merely to good etiquette. I say “class” is much deeper. It also refers to our morals and dignity, especially in the context of how we treat others. What do you say?
A: The word “class” comes from the Latin classis, a division of the Roman people. The first census, according to Roman tradition, divided the people into six “classes” based on property assessments.
In English, “class” has had many meanings over the years, but I won’t go into the academic, military, legal, and scientific ones.
Some meanings in the social sense would indeed qualify as elitist in your friend’s view. But “class” has other meanings that refer to a person’s merit rather than to his pedigree or bank balance.
In the 17th century, when it entered the language, the noun “class” meant “a division or order of society according to status; a rank or grade of society,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.
The term, according to the OED, is “now common in the phrases higher (upper), middle, lower classes, working classes; which appear to be of modern introduction. Higher and lower orders were formerly used.”
The use of “class” in these phrases, the OED adds, is largely derived from another 17th-century meaning of the word: “a number of individuals (persons or things) possessing common attributes, and grouped together under a general or ‘class’ name; a kind, sort, division.”
In the 1800s, “class” was often used to mean high rank, and “the classes” meant “the classes of the community raised above or separated from ‘the masses’ or great body of the people,” the OED says.
Here are a couple of citations by British prime ministers for “class” used in the sense of high rank:
From Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil (1845): “Walled out from sympathy by prejudices and convictions more impassable than all the mere consequences of class.”
And from William Gladstone in the Pall Mall Gazette (1886): “Station, title, wealth, social influence … in a word, the spirit and power of class.”
But since the 19th century, “class” has also taken on a more democratic meaning, having to do with merit. The OED labels this sense (“distinction, high quality”) as slang or colloquial.
In print, this usage dates from 1874, when it appeared in John C. Hotten’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words with this definition:
“Class, the highest quality or combination of highest qualities among athletes. ‘He’s not class enough’, i.e., not good enough. ‘There’s a deal of class about him’, i.e., a deal of quality.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in its definitions of “class,” includes this “informal” usage: “Elegance of style, taste, and manner: an actor with class.”
American Heritage defines a “class act” as “one of distinctive and superior quality.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes among its definitions “high quality,” as in “a hotel with class,” and “the best of its kind,” as in “the class of the league.”
M-W says a “class act” (which it dates from 1976) is “an example of outstanding quality or prestige.”
I think there’s another meaning, too, that has to do with a person’s behavior and bearing.
Someone who behaves nobly – say, defending an unpopular principle, sacrificing something for a greater good, turning the other cheek to keep the peace when he’d rather kick butt – shows class.