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For example, in Indonesia we have "rakyat". In English we may have citizen but the word actually has power connotation rather than powerless connotation.

Another word is peasant. But that seems to mean those living in village rather than the lowest ranking people in society.

Here, when I say lowest rank, I mean lowest rank in political power. Most of us, for example, are just "people" no matter how rich we are.

So what's the word for the lowest rank member in English?

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closed as not constructive by Andrew Leach, MετάEd, tchrist, Robusto, Matt Эллен Feb 27 '13 at 16:23

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I think that there is a notional assent in the UK (and certainly a written one in the US) that, as stated by the English-born William Penn “all men are equal under God”. Judaism and Christianity teach this. Though not everyone in the West seeks to value others as highly as himself. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 27 '13 at 11:19
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I think that peasant can be used effectively to mean people on the lowest rung of society without implying that they live in a village. This would be a slightly pejorative use of the word. –  tylerharms Feb 27 '13 at 11:42
    
What are you saying Rakyat is the equivalent of? Bank Rakyat Indonesia translates to People's Bank of Indonesia. –  coleopterist Feb 27 '13 at 12:36
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You should be careful with “rank”. It can be a sensitive term for many. –  tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 14:26
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The unspoken assumption that there is a single word for "the lowest rank member in English" is incorrect. This question as currently stated is attracting a long list of word suggestions, and needs to be reworded. Until this happens it should be closed "not constructive". –  MετάEd Feb 27 '13 at 15:25

13 Answers 13

The word pleb can be used to describe very lowly people in political terms.

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or ploretar? ploretariat? –  Jim Thio Feb 27 '13 at 11:29
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@JimThio: I think you mean "proletariat". –  tylerharms Feb 27 '13 at 11:39
    
As an informal solution, I like this real well. –  tylerharms Feb 27 '13 at 11:47
    
@tylerharms No, he means pleb, a common abbreviation of plebeian (from the latin plebs, plebis). Aka, "common people." This has a bit of a derogatory connotation in many English speaking countries. –  Sam Whited Feb 27 '13 at 14:55
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I wouldn't recommend this wholeheartedly in British English. It's muddied by the fact that we use the word for someone idiotic. Better words that are solely focused on social status would be peasant, serf or peon. Check the wikipedia article for more information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plebs –  Quibblesome Feb 27 '13 at 16:26

Western society does not have explicit castes, and even notional/nominal class is tied now more to education and profession than to birth. In fact, it is more than a little bit politically incorrect to talk about these things, because it condemns people for things beyond their own control.

If you are talking about somebody who’s nobody special, you might try for an average Joe or Joe Everyman. This is a bit less unkind than calling a member of the masses a “nobody”.

Moving into strictly pejorative territory now, per the OED, a lowlife (irregular plural lowlifes instead of *lowlives) is “a coarse, vulgar, or no-good person.” Inspecting a thesaurus will lead to countless synonyms of such good-for-nothings and scoundrels.

Similar queries can be constructed if you are more interested in focusing on them as uneducated and uncultured know-nothings on the one hand, or on the other, as the poor unfortunates and related do-nothings who make up the unproductive non-working class, sometimes called the permanent underclass. In earlier times, and perhaps even now, these unscrupulous cads were also called stick-at-nothing, for which the OED gives the example of “a false, lying, swindling, underhand, stick-at-nothing brute.”

If there is any connection to be found here amongst these many pejoratives, it is the “nothingness” link connecting good-for-nothing, do-nothing, know-nothing, and stick-at-nothing.

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While you have a point, the recent row over 'plebs' in the UK shows how deep the class divides are. Class may not be caste, but 'serf' and 'pleb' are not very pejorative and denote the least powerful and broadest spectrum of society. –  user32135 Feb 27 '13 at 15:17
    
@AkberChoudhry In America, a pleb is merely a nickname for someone pledging to a college fraternity or sorority. Google for pleb fraternity to see what I mean. –  tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 15:21

The lowest-ranking person in society might be a serf:-

a person in a condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord's land and transferred with it from one owner to another.

or perhaps a churl:-

a. A ceorl. b. A medieval English peasant.

Slightly higher in the pecking order would be a villein:-

One of a class of feudal serfs who held the legal status of freemen in their dealings with all people except their lord.

The precise gradations and the names used would depend on which part of the world we are discussing, and the historical time. In modern times, the lowest of the low would probably be a chav:-

a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour

Moving over to India, we might find an untouchable:-

Hinduism. the former name given to a member of a lower caste in India whose touch was believed to defile a high-caste Hindu; Harijan.

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Both churl and villein seem archaic and nearly unusable. And chav would be lost on most AmE speakers. The closest words we have to chav in AmE are probably white trash or redneck. –  tylerharms Feb 27 '13 at 11:47
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@tylerharms, churl and villein are still in use as churlish and villain (I'm told it's from the Normans using these words as terms of abuse). Perhaps you'd like to post your suggestions as answers; the question doesn't appear to have any limit as to time or place. –  Brian Hooper Feb 27 '13 at 12:20
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I'd go with "serf". –  Joe Z. Feb 27 '13 at 12:44
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@Brian Hooper: Our villain implies something negative and not necessarily associated with class while 11th-century usage of villein deals specifically with class. For some time this has been the case. Orlando remarks to this effect in As You Like It: "he is thrice a villain that says such a father begot villeins". Maybe villains are at the bottom of society, but not on account of class. –  tylerharms Feb 27 '13 at 12:44
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I agree that churl and villain now have negative connotations that don't fit the meaning sought by the OP. "Serf" and "pleb", on the other hand, while they had more specific meanings at one time, that may not fit the desired meaning, now are often used simply to mean "very low-status person." –  LarsH Feb 27 '13 at 15:36

You might consider using the word peon. I believe that it has the meaning you seek; additionally, it also carries the connotation you're looking for. Finally, it's informal enough to be understood in everyday speech.

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There are many words to describe the lowest class of society. The ones that haven't been mention yet are: Underclass and Working poor.

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Or the great unwashed. –  Thruston Feb 27 '13 at 14:38
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I did mention underclass in my own earlier answer, but perhaps you missed it; it is somewhat buried. Also, the working poor are a significant step up from the non-working poor, since the working ones are productive members of society while the non-working ones are not. –  tchrist Feb 27 '13 at 14:42

What about 'dregs of society'?

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In the US, a homeless alcoholic (in theory) has the same rights to vote, serve in a jury, petition Congress, practice religion, speak, etc, as a Billionaire. –  emory Feb 27 '13 at 15:07

'pleb' and 'serf' are good approximations.

For a term that is not archaic, is neither pejorative nor exalting, how about 'hoi-polloi'?

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Actually I believe hoi-polloi does have pejorative connotations. –  ghoppe Feb 27 '13 at 15:30
    
Yes, on second thought, agreed. Maybe, just its anglicized version - 'the masses'. –  user32135 Feb 27 '13 at 15:35
    
At least as derogatory is "the great unwashed", "the herd", rabble and riffraff (all collective designations) and prole, grunt and knuckle-dragger (epithets applied to individuals). –  Erik Kowal May 1 at 4:17

Not so much, in terms of "rank", but another useful term that I can think of is "Social Pariah" from: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pariah

noun
1. an outcast.
2. any person or animal that is generally despised or avoided.
3. (initial capital letter) a member of a low caste in southern India and Burma.

It's sometimes used colloquially as:

"No-one ever asked Tom for a beer, he was the social pariah in the office."

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In a society without a rank structure, it's hard to come up with a word for the lowest rank.

However, there is this idiom: cog in the machine.

The phrase is used to describe an insignifcant or unimportant person, often made to feel dehumanized. One website explains how the expression refers to "an unimportant part of a large enterprise; an exchangeable piece of equipment" that's "used in a very negative sense when expressing dissatisfaction with one's position." Dictionary.com defines it as: One who holds a minor but necessary post in a large organization.

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Commoner:

An ordinary person, without rank or title.

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In some (but apparently not all) Western countries, we think everyone is equal. But in fact there are people with less political rank than citizens. They are called prisoners. Prisoners often do not have the right to vote or participate in juries. The civil liberties (freedom of speech, association, privacy, etc.) of prisoners are often more limited than those enjoyed by citizens.

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This is not general for the west. It only applies to the US. –  KaptajnKold Feb 27 '13 at 15:34

Use mudsill. Here are the references: link1, link2

Use heel, but I suspect it's really rare. link3

Use plebeian. link4

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Is this a common word? –  Jim Thio Feb 27 '13 at 11:29
    
Yes, I believe. –  lexeme Feb 27 '13 at 11:35
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Mudsill is extremely rare, heel is just a jerk (says nothing about status) and plebeian is heard but not as common as peasant or commoner. –  Mitch Feb 27 '13 at 12:32
    
Never heard of mudsill. (I'm a native English speaker.) Agree with Mitch that heel means something negative about character / behavior, and doesn't carry information about social status to me. –  LarsH Feb 27 '13 at 15:38

Nonperson comes to mind, although it is supposed to mean someone who is so low that they actually fall out of society altogether.

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A non-person is one who is actively ostracized by being shunned by their community and/or being forced out of their job, home, etc. It was a familiar method of reining in dissidents during the heyday of Soviet and Far Eastern communist regimes, but has also been employed to varying extents in most Western countries at one time or another (for instance, recall how McCarthyite blacklisting was used to cow left-leaning film studios and actors in the 1950s, or (worse still) how Germany's jews were treated after 1933). It's not so much a question of falling out of society as being pushed out. –  Erik Kowal May 1 at 3:51

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