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How can I use bourgeoisie properly in this day and age?

I understand that at one time it meant part of the wealthy "middle class". Back then the middle class owned the means to production (merchants for example). However the social and economic order was totally different.

In Italy, the middle class was somewhere between vassels and peasants. In France, before the revolutions, the bourgeoisie was part of the rural Third Estate, the lowest estate, which was made of commoners.

Yet today, I hear it being used to refer to more of an "upper class" sort of folk. So I'm very confused as to how I should interpret the word. I'm not sure if it should even be used today, as it's original context has changed so much.

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    Karl Marx has ruined that word for general use. Choose something else unless you are plotting revolution.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 18:26
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    Choose something else even if you're plotting revolution. You probably should avoid proletariat for the same reason. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 18:56
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    The wise men above gave you sound advice. From Wikipedia: Contemporarily, the terms "bourgeoisie" and "bourgeois" identify the ruling class in capitalist societies, as a social stratum; while "bourgeois" describes the Weltanschauung (worldview) of men and women whose way of thinking is socially and culturally determined by their economic materialism and philistinism.
    – Babs
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 19:18
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    In fact, it is not much used today; as this Google Ngram shows, its absolute incidence has been declining rapidly since a peak in the 1970s, at the height of the counterculture. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 23:57
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    Using this word makes you sound like a bolshevik or a pedant. If either of them is your goal, then it's a great word.
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 21:51

3 Answers 3

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When I hear the word, I don't think peasant at all. I think middle class, but a middle class which has great social influence over culture, a different influence from the elites or the lower classes. This I think comes from Marx. In America, the word is more likely to be used to talk about culture, not economics.

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  • That is certainly the way it is used in Britain, where it tends to be synonymous with "middle class". But the latter is more restrictive than the American sense of "middle class". As well as meaning financially well off, being "middle class" in Britain implies a set of values where education, culture, and social dignity are pre-eminent. It is used both as a term of approval, and depending on context one of disparagement - sometimes by the same people.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 23, 2021 at 21:09
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Wikipedia offers this thought:

Contemporarily, the terms "bourgeoisie" and "bourgeois" identify the ruling class in capitalist societies, as a social stratum; while "bourgeois" describes the [worldview] of men and women whose way of thinking is socially and culturally determined by their economic materialism and philistinism, a social identity catalogued and described in drame bourgeois (bourgeois drama), which satirizes buying the trappings of a noble-birth identity as the means climbing the social ladder.[9][10] (See: Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, 1670.)

The sources noted are:

  • Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia Third Edition (1987) p. 118, p. 759.
  • Molière, ed. Warren 1899

It's opening paragraph also contains this matching description:

As such, in the Western world, since the late 18th century, the bourgeoisie describes a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital, and their related culture"; hence, the personal terms bourgeois (masculine) and bourgeoise (feminine) culturally identify the man or woman who is a member of the wealthiest social class of a given society, and their materialistic worldview.

Looking the word up in a standard dictionary mildly supports this:

bourgeoisie

  1. the middle classes

  2. (in Marxist thought) the ruling class of the two basic classes of capitalist society, consisting of capitalists, manufacturers, bankers, and other employers. The bourgeoisie owns the most important of the means of production, through which it exploits the working class

More on the Marxist usage can be found at this Marxist glossary.

In terms of using it properly, it sounds as if the word is tremendously charged with controversy and economic debate. I would avoid using the term unless you were discussing the specific theories involved or are seeking to annoy someone who happens to dislike Marx.

In American English, appropriate alternatives would be middle class, upper-middle class or upper-class depending on your intended usage. You can read the Wikipedia links for more information.

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  • The OED has two different senses for the word - not at all unusual. Many many words have multiple senses. The second one is the Marxist one, referred to in your answer, of people who - under Marxist theory - "support the interests of capitalism", or "are considered exploiters of the proletariat by virtue of their control of the means of production". However, the earlier meaning, with examples in English from 1593 refers to the "citizenry or freemen of a town or borough in France (or occasionally in other foreign countries). Later more generally: the middle class, esp. the urban middle class".
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 23, 2021 at 20:58
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Since this is the English language forum I accept that you are asking about English usage. Just for the sake of completeness I add only that in French (where these terms originated) "bourgeois" and "bourgeoisie" are very much alive and kicking. The same goes for their German equivalents “bürgerlich” and “Bürgertum”.

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