Four letter words often come to mind, but pleb isn’t one of them. I am without doubt a pleb. I have no connexions to the ruling classes. I am not of a landed family and have no land myself. Which reminds me: I heard a story, maybe apocryphal but still telling, of a man now a bishop who, when asked what his father did for a living responded ‘he doesn’t do, he owns’. As I say, I’m not one of them.
If pleb means someone from the lower social classes, then that’s pretty meaningless since in east Cumberland in the 1950s social classes didn’t really feature much. In the village there were farmers (Methodist) and there were people who lived in council houses (largely no religion). Within 10 miles there were landed gentry (C of E of course) such as the Vanes of Hutton, Whitelaws of Ennim, and Hasells of Dalemain. In Penrith it was rumoured that there were some very strange and exotic creatures: Catholics. Irish came in the 19th century to build the railway over Shap and Poles came in WW2. According to father, these people caused mayhem on Friday nights, and went to confession on Saturday, so it was all OK. There was a bit of forelock tugging. Father had been a policeman in Bradford in the 1930s, and through his work in later years with the Special Constabulary he was proud of his friendship with Lord Inglewood. But despite these later notions, we’re all thoroughly pleb so far.
Family history is still pleb. The Monkhouses were farmers and butchers; the Dobinsons (father’s mother) had aspirations certainly, but no land and no significant connexions. The Cranstons (mother’s father), a border reiver family, were butchers (and still are, famously so), and the Reids (mother’s mother) were Fife coalminers. So I’m still pleb.
I can’t remember having used the word in the playground to denigrate someone else. This is not because I was particularly virtuous—as a fat child I’d say I was more of a watchful performer—but because even though I did Latin it wasn’t a word that had any traction either way.
Of course, it’s the word playground that sums up this whole episode. It doesn’t speak well of Andrew wotsisname who comes across as a bit of a prat, and it doesn’t speak well of whoever objected to the word pleb: they should, as SWMBO says often enough to me, ‘grow a pair.’
I wondered what adjectives might I object to? Fat, smelly, untidy, ignorant, stuck up, insecure, stupid, degenerate, determined, stubborn, reactionary, unprincipled, pliable? They all leave me unmoved: some are accurate some are not. (Nice? Oh God, no, not nice, I will not tolerate being called nice.) I recall a party in Nottingham in the 1980s at which a woman, trying to insult me as gravely as she could, said I was a Conservative voter. She was a soggy champagne socialist and—of course—a Vicar’s wife. I think I told her to do something with a four letter word, not pleb.
For the record, I am not a Conservative voter. I am a Communist with me in charge.