The Grammarphobia Blog

The upper crust

Q: Why is the highest social class referred to as the “upper crust”? Is it because the top crust on a loaf of bread is often better than the bottom, which may be burnt?

A: The adjective “upper” has been used literally since the 14th century to describe ground that is elevated, and figuratively since the 15th to describe people who are elevated in rank.

That early figurative sense may have inspired the use of “upper crust” as a metaphor for social and other elites. There’s no evidence that a loaf of bread had anything to do with it.

The earliest literal example for “upper” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Kyng Alisaunder, an anonymous Middle English romance, believed written in the late 1300s, about the life of Alexander the Great:

“Þe kyng þennes went forþ … in to ynde in þe norþ, Þat is ycleped … þe vpper ynde” (“The king then went forth … into the district in the north, that is called … the upper district”).

The first figurative example is from a 1477 entry in the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, Scotland: “That Alexander … be continevit vpper and principale maister of wark” (“That Alexander … be continued as the upper and principal master of work”).

When the noun “crust” appeared in the early 14th century, it referred to the “outer part of bread rendered hard and dry in baking,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Otuel a Kniȝt, a Middle English romance about the conversion of a Saracen knight to Christianity: “Anawe of Nubie he smot, / That neuere eft crouste he ne bot” (“Anawe of Nubia he slew / That a crust would nevermore renew”). Oxford dates the romance at some time before 1330.

Over the years, the word “crust” took on many figurative meanings, including a scab on the body (1398), the outer portion of the earth (1555), and a hard coating or deposit on the surface of something (1619).

When the phrase “upper crust” appeared in writing in the 15th century, it referred literally to the top crust on a loaf of bread. The first OED citation is from The Boke of Nurture (1460), by John Russell, a manual on manners, food, and dress: “Kutt þe vpper crust [of the loaf] for youre souerayne.”

Russell, a senior servant to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is describing how a domestic should wait on his master, or sovereign. There’s no reason to believe this little-known comment inspired the use of “upper crust” to mean the elite—a usage that showed up more than three and a half centuries later.

The earliest example we’ve seen for “upper crust” used figuratively to mean the aristocracy is from an 1823 dictionary of sports slang by Jon Bee, a pseudonym of the English sports writer John Badcock: “Upper-crust—one who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-crust.”

The first OED citation is from The Clockmaker (1837), an account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “It was none o’ your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

The dictionary’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from another Haliburton book, The Attaché (1843), a collection of Sam Slick adventures in England: “I want you to see Peel, Graham, Shiel, Russell, Macaulay, old Joe, and so on. These men are all upper crust here.”

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