I have a fascination with a prejudice in language. Indulge me by considering each set of four synonyms, then speedily categorizing individual words into two lists, one labeled “classy” & one labeled “not classy.” Don't overthink -- just go for it.
big large vast great
compact miniature little small
thin slender gaunt skinny
chubby stout fat obese
clever astute smart intelligent
Next, compare your lists with these:
The words on the left are words derived from Norse, Frisian, Dutch, and various Germanic sources. The words on the right mostly come through French from Latin, though one comes directly from Latin, one is Latin through Italian and stout is a Middle Low German word that came to English through French (that last stage being salient to this topic).
If you placed most of the words on the left in the “not classy” column and most of the words on the right in the “classy” column, like me, you have absorbed a prejudice that linguists attribute to the events following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the big win, the Norman nobles who supported William the Conqueror (formerly known as Guillaume, since he was born in Normandy, France) became the ruling class of England. French became the language of the courts and royalty. This set French and its mother language, Latin, far above the everyday Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Celtic tongues spoken by the lowly peasants. This system lasted for centuries, as have the prejudices born of it.
This prejudice has some intriguing applications for those who write. Precise application of classy vs. non-classy words can subtly influence readers’ impressions of characters & events, encouraging or discouraging trust or likability.
Dang, those authors are tricky cusses, aren’t they?
Please let me know whether any of this rings true. Did your lists look mostly like my lists or am I just some nutcase who puts too much time into thinking about words?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Merriam-Webster, Pixabay, Wordnik, & History.com, & Etymonline.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.