Etymology Usage

An elitist attitude?

Q: I’ve always believed that “elite” is a collective noun, both singular and plural. I’m aware the word “elites” emerged during the George W. Bush years, generally in a pejorative sense. Is there in fact such a word as “elites”?

A: The use of “elites,” especially in a negative sense, may have increased during the Bush years, but it had been around for decades before then.

A May 27, 1982, article in the New York Times, for example, mentions “a trenchant critic of the power of unbridled elites in a pluralist society.”

And a June 13, 1982, piece in the Times discusses “confronting local power elites locked into quid pro quo relationships with the ruling party” in India.

OK, the usage has a history, but is the word “elites” legit?

The short answer is yes. However, the use of the noun “elite” in English often seems arbitrary. Here’s the story.

The  word, borrowed directly from the French élite, comes ultimately from the Latin verb eligere (to choose). It’s the same source that gave us “elect.”

In English, “elite” refers to the choice part of something—the most respected, skillful, or influential members of a society or class or body.

With the Latin verb eligere in mind, we might refer to the elite as the chosen.

Although the term is often used in a negative way, as you point out, that sense hasn’t made its way yet into standard dictionaries.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “elite” has two plurals, “elite” and “elites.”

But the two dictionaries aren’t as clear as we’d like about when to use “elite” as a singular and when to use each of the plurals.

In fact, the AH and M-W entries give the impression that it would be hard to go wrong in using these terms.

As for us, we’d use “elite” as a singular noun if we were emphasizing the group as a whole: “The Washington elite has lost touch with Middle America.”

We’d use “elite” as a plural if we were thinking of members of the group: “The Wall Street elite are reeling from the banking scandal.”

And we’d use “elites” as a plural if we were speaking of two different groups: “The political and literary elites are at odds over support for public broadcasting.” 

We think “elites” is overused today and unnecessary if “elite” could just as easily be used. But that’s only our opinion. And maybe it’s an elitist attitude.

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