Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I was drawn to the word, “classless” in Carolyn Hax’s answer to a reader in the counseling corner of Washington Post (June 7), which comes under the title, “How do you get back at a loudmouth? By letting the boor talk.”

Asker: What to do, as a full-grown adult, when a classless coward makes a loud, public and derogatory comment about your mother after your unknowing mother walked out of the restaurant, where this person and party were coincidentally seated near us?

Carolyn Hax: If you want to take down a “classless coward,” then give her a megaphone and let her dismantle herself. With no amplifying equipment handy, it’s okay just to let rude people think they won, to have faith that people of character know a boor when they hear one and to trust you won’t implode waiting for the vengeful urges to pass.

I’m inclined to associate the word “classless” in the above quote with the Japanese expression, “どこの馬の骨とも解らぬ人-Dokono-uma-no hone"- A person like a bone of horse who comes from an unknown family - meaning a person whose family line and social class are unknown, therefore boorish or untrustworthy. Yesteryears’ parents wouldn’t have agreed their daughter to marry a lad like a “bone of horse”.

However as far as I checked CED and OED, the meaning of “classless” is just neutral:

CED defines ‘classless’ as;

  1. Not belonging to a particular social class
  2. Having no different social classes

OED defines it as;

  1. (Of a society) not divided into social classes
  2. Not showing obvious signs of belonging to a particular social class

Is the word, “classless” just neutral on its implication, or does it have a somewhat negative tone depending on the occasion, as observed in the above example?

                                                    

share|improve this question
4  
It is definitely negative in the USA, the opposite of classy, unless strictly dealing with classes in society (which is not the most common use of the word here). –  medica Jun 7 at 3:05
    
It can be used neutrally, but it is usually used in the sense of being vulgar, behaviorally appropriate to the lower class. –  Anonym Jun 7 at 4:39
    
Consider also the word "gentle", which originally derives from an association between good character/behaviour and being well-born, i.e. of good social class. I'm pretty sure "classy/classless" was at one time a similar association. Most people who use "gentle" in the sense of "non-violent" aren't making any association with social class, and I think many (maybe not most) people who use "classy"/"classless" in the sense "good/bad character" aren't either. I'm surprised the dictionaries don't give the derived meaning, it's perfectly intelligible to me as a speaker of British English. –  Steve Jessop Jun 7 at 12:36

5 Answers 5

Merriam Webster lists a third sense

3: crass, boorish classless behavior

The article is using it in the third sense. I rarely encounter the word used of a person in a non-insulting way.

share|improve this answer
    
Absolutely. Classless is a super negative term in the US almost all of the time. –  RyeɃreḁd Jun 7 at 4:58
2  
@RyeɃreḁd Except in the sense that we live in a classless society, and anyone who suggests otherwise is engaging in class warfare. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classless_society and google.com/… –  Wayfaring Stranger Jun 7 at 14:20
    
@WayfaringStranger - completely agree but that is not common usage and very easy to differ with context. –  RyeɃreḁd Jun 7 at 17:07

It is being used in a negative sense in that example, but I think the positive sense is also familiar to just about everyone in the English-speaking world from John Lennon's lyrics in Working Class Hero:

And you think you're so clever and classless and free

But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see

share|improve this answer

In the US, classless is usually the opposite of classy, unless strictly dealing with classes in society (which is not the most common use of the word here). Some uses of class:

  • "He does everything with class," Blake said. "He answers his questions very carefully, very politically correct, and he doesn't really put himself in a bad situation where he has to try to dig himself out." - NYT, of Donovan McNabb
  • ...guys that played on the team with him, you would hear the same statement, that he is a classy guy from top to bottom. - NYT
  • It was all plain as day and made its own argument: San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is a classless thug.

However

  • She asks people if Sweden really is a classless society and badgers union officials about why the labor movement is so conservative. NYT
share|improve this answer

...meaning a person who’s [sic] family line and social class are unknown, therefore boorish or untrustworthy.

Americans do not have the historical social distinction/caste system found in other cultures, including Japan. Notably, there is a societal pride for those who have come from difficult circumstances and have succeeded economically, educationally...it is part of our 'melting pot' mentality. Your quote refers to one person, not her family, or lineage but her personal actions.

The term 'classless' is not always negative, and in fact can be used to show admiration for someone who refuses to follow sociatal norms but succeeds nonetheless.

share|improve this answer
1  
@Mari-LouA It is bad practice to correct a quoted passage; it undermines the provenance with respect to searching, and the understanding the speaker's ESL status. In this case, a '(sic)' notation is the proper method for drawing attention to an error. –  Third News Jun 7 at 4:28
    
Mari-Lou A. I was careless and unaware of having put “a person ‘who’s.” It should be ‘whose.’ Thank you for pointing out the mistake. –  Yoichi Oishi Jun 7 at 8:34
    
@ThirdNews, quoting via “...person who’s [sic] family...” is appropriate if you wish to call attention to the error and disclaim responsibility for it. But quoting via “...person [whose] family...” (ie, using brackets to show that a word has been changed) would be more appropriate here. There is no particular reason to highlight the error. -1 –  jwpat7 Jun 7 at 17:55

In the US, classless can be understood to mean: lacking class.

This fits both the positive (our society is classless) and negative (that person is classless).

The reason why one is positive and the other is negative, is because "class" has a different meaning depending upon context. For individuals, it does not refer to family or bloodlines, it refers to manners and style.

Calling someone classless, is not neutral -- it is always a condemnation.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.