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How Did 'Bourgeoisie' Become a Bad Word?

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme illustration
Moliere's play "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," ("The Bourgeois Gentleman") from which this illustration comes, satirizes attempts at social climbing and the pretentious middle class. duncan1890/Getty Images

According to the word-watchers at Merriam-Webster, the word "bourgeois" (pronounced boor·jwa) probably doesn't mean what you think it means. That's because Americans tend to think that everything French is fancy and high-class. But bourgeois is anything but fancy. It's used to refer to somebody or something that's decidedly middle-class, conventional and basic.

In other words, if someone says you have bourgeois taste, don't take it as a compliment.

So how did this French word with way too many vowels make its way into English usage, and how did it evolve over the past century into English slang like "bushwa" and "bougie"? Let's get all etymological on this one.

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Once Upon a Time in France

The original meaning of bourgeois is from the French word bourg, which means a small market town or walled settlement. Back in the Middle Ages, people who lived in these country towns were known as the bourgeois. Since town folk were one economic step up from farming peasants, the bourgeois were the first middle class.

By the 17th century, bourgeois had taken on a new, more critical connotation. The French playwright Moliere, for example, wrote a musical comedy in 1670 called "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" or "The Bourgeois Gentleman" that poked fun at a naive, middle-class social climber who hires tutors and fashion consultants to fit into high-class society.

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The Bourgeoisie as Marxist Bad Guys

By the 19th century, bourgeois had migrated from snarky social commentary to the center of a radical political movement.

In 1848, Karl Marx published "The Communist Manifesto," which laid out the German philosopher's revolutionary economic worldview. Marx believed that capitalist, industrial societies were engaged in a class war. The heroes were the proletariat or the working class, while the villains were the bourgeoisie, the middle-class capitalists who "owned the means of production."

Since Marx was writing in German, he used the phrase "bürgerliche Gesellschaft," which was alternately translated to English as "civil society" or "bourgeois society." In either case, the accusation was the same, that the bourgeoisie ripped off the proletariat by getting rich off their labor. The bourgeoisie were the bad guys and had to be toppled.

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That's a Bunch of 'Bushwa'!

When Marxist ideas crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century, the plight of the proletariat was picked up by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), better known as the "Wobblies."

Americans can't resist mangling a foreign word. As journalists Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman report on their blog Grammarphobia, the Wobblies slangified bourgeois into the word "bushwa." O'Conner and Kellerman quote a 1970 article describing the Wobbly worldview back in the early 1900s:

"IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as 'bushwa' society."

But what's even more fun, O'Conner and Kellerman report, is that the derisive tone of "bushwa" quickly slipped into the common lexicon as a PG version of "bulls----." They quote the "Random House Dictionary of American Slang," which found the first such usage in a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette:

"'Bushwa,' ... a term of derision used to convey the same comment as 'hot air,' drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives."

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Is It Bad to Be 'Bougie'?

Black popular culture has been remixing its own version of bourgeois at least since Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded their 1980 disco hit, "Bourgie, Bourgie" (pronounced "boo-jee, boojee"). The song describes a person "from across the tracks" who flaunts their new money with fancy clothes and a shiny car with a sunroof.

In 21st-century black slang, "bourgie" or "bougie" has flipped back to a definition Moliere would recognize. It's used to playfully throw shade on upwardly mobile black men and women with upper-middle-class tastes.

Damon Young at The Root goes so far as to distinguish between "bougie" and "bourgie." "Bourgie," he writes, "describes a certain upper-middle to lower-upper class lifestyle more dependent on and defined by activities, ancestry, and legacy than actual income." Activities like attending Jack and Jill cotillions and summering at Martha's Vineyard — which means "bourgie" has the whiff of being pretentious. On the other hand, "bougie black people are mostly urban, have completed some form of secondary education, and, most importantly, possess and are mindful of a certain urban/educated aesthetic." Tastes would include game nights, Solange Knowles and bottomless brunches, according to Young.

And then there's "boujee," as popularized in the 2016 Migos hit "Bad and Boujee", which proudly glorifies that new-money lifestyle The Pips were teasing in the 1980s. The video shows well-heeled ladies wearing Moschino dresses drinking champagne and eating out of Chanel fast-food containers.

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Meanwhile, Back in France

In modern France, being bourgeois doesn't mean you have pedestrian tastes. In fact, it's the opposite. According to Camille Chevalier-Karfis, a native Parisian who teaches classes on French language and culture, being bourgeois is all about effortless style, good manners, good education and maybe a country house to escape the city on the weekends.

The flashy nemesis of the French bourgeois is the "nouveau riche," who vulgarly flaunt their wealth and status with sports cars and jewelry.

Chevalier-Karfis notes there are three kinds of bourgeois: Parisian bourgeois who are the "crème de la crème," close to nobility and rich; bourgeois de province, who are the middle-class lawyers and doctors, etc; and the petite bourgeois who are "self-employed people like shopkeepers and artisans who also want their share of it all." All three categories, she assures us, follow the same codes of the bourgeois.

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