In French the word *paysan (fem. paysanne) translates to English as 'farmer', as well as 'peasant'. (Collins).

It is by no means demeaning in many European countries (including France) to refer to someone as a paysan. It means a type of country person, but not necessarily one of low social status. Many landowners are described thus.

According to the OED almost all the meanings of peasant are demeaning, indeed they take the trouble to point out that it is a word which has effectively ceased to refer anyone in Britain, and is generally applied to agricultural communities in poor countries. Peasant is nowadays mostly used in Britain as a term of abuse. Not even agricultural labourers are referred to as 'peasants'.

Was there ever a wealthy peasant class in Britain, and in her original dominions such as America, Australia etc, and if so where has it gone?

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    Probably due to its use in medieval periods where the feudal system was in force, and the bottom rung were known as peasants. They effectively did work as farmers, but in england this coincided with the lowest class of the society – FireGarden Feb 14 '14 at 17:04
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    A peasant is not a free man, he is bound to the land and is one step above a slave. It isn't surprising that this might raise hackles. – Oldcat Feb 14 '14 at 19:02
  • I've never heard the English word "peasant" refer to anyone who owns land. Possibly paysan and "peasant" share the same etymological origin, but from your description it does not sound like they're equivalent terms. – Kyle Strand Feb 14 '14 at 21:19

That wealthy class would certainly not see themselves as peasants. They were the owners of land, and one of the ways to turn land into money was to have people work it. The ones that did that work were the peasants.

There has never been a wealthy peasant class, because a peasant was by definition a person who worked a small piece of land, which often did not belong to him, and he had to pay taxes over the produce. Successful peasant might end up with a bit more land and the ability to hire hands, but they would still belong to the lowest class.

Only after the demise of the feudal system did farming become eventually a real enterprise, where the farmer owns his own land and can run a sizeable farm as a business.

This is not unique to Britain but true for most of (Western) Europe, where the feudal system was in place throughout the Middle Ages.

As for French, although I have heard paysan used in a pejorative sense, it's not as strong as "peasant"in English. Why that is - maybe because of the quite harsh reset of social values after the French Revolution?

The Dutch "boer", though the normal way to refer to a farmer, certainly also has negative connotations, and when applied to someone who is not a farmer, carries the message that that person is uncivilized, uneducated and rude. It is also commonly attached to other nouns to indicate negativity, although strangely enough it's also used to indicate "old fashioned, artisanal quality".

So it is not just in English the word has negative connotations :) (And I realized why nobody will ever understand the Dutch or their language :P )

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    German "Bauer" (farmer) can also be used in a pejorative sense. – Sebastian Negraszus Feb 14 '14 at 21:42

In French the word *paysan (fem. paysanne) translates to English as 'farmer', as well as 'peasant'. (Collins).

One certainly wouldn't call a gentleman farmer who owned a large estate a paysan, whether in French or as that word has been re-borrowed into English.

When peasant came into English with the Normans, it denoted a rank, as well as a rural rather than urban life.

Just how derogatory that is depends on your politics—the peasant might be the only person you hold as having value, compared to the greedy bourgeois and the decadent aristocrats!—and your romantic inclinations—the peasant has been the focus of many a pastoral fantasy on the part of the non-peasant classes, from Walter Raleigh's "Shepherd" poems, through Marie Antoinette's silk dairymaid costume through to various back-to-nature movements.

But still, the peasant is certainly "lowly" in both the English and French use, and the rest follows from how one reacts to that lowly station. That the English haven't had a good beheading of the upper classes by the lower classes since 1649, while the French not only picked up the habit a good hundred years later, but also stuck with their republic for longer than the ten years the English managed (albeit with some setbacks along the way) would have some effect.

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    +1 Also, we (meaning both Brits and Yanks) have a useful native term for the prosperous agriculturist. Peasant refers to the degraded inhabitants of unhappy nations which lack Roast Beef, Brown Ale, and The (not merely A) Bill of Rights; our tongue celebrates the Yeoman. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 14 '14 at 17:41
  • @StoneyB I think we Yanks would more often recognize the Gentleman Farmer. – bib Feb 14 '14 at 17:55
  • @bib I may be showing my age and ethnos. My father was a student of Donald Davidson's, and the Fugitives/Southern Agrarians were fond of yeoman for the agricultural class. Gentleman Farmer would probably for them have suggested something quite different: the remnant of the old Planter class. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 14 '14 at 18:00
  • @bib, They're like Big Agriculture, but not actually anywhere near as big, with a stronger fondness for tweed, and a working definition of "old money" of, "before you were throwing your tea into the sea". – Jon Hanna Feb 14 '14 at 18:01
  • I think it was your tea they were throwing into the sea; but, yeah, Gentleman Farmer to me means the gentry, the squirearchy. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 14 '14 at 18:04

"peasant" may come from old French word "païsan", you do not translate it to "paysan".

The word that better corresponding to the meaning of "peasant" is "serf" :

  • do not own the land or a very little part
  • have hard work
  • be exploited by the owner of the land or a powerful economic entity

While "farmer" matches with the meaning of "paysan" used in French.

In French, call someone who is not from big cities and came to work there "Paysan", and you will see if it has no negative connotation. (See Amphiteóth comment)

  • My Concise Oxford HACHETTE French Dictionary does not have an entry for païsan, and I had never come across it before. I have to admit that pays and paysan always seem idiosyncratic as the y is rarely found in French. – WS2 Jun 29 '15 at 7:49
  • @WS2 This book and this (word origin section) may help. What your dictionary tells about peasant etymology? (BTW a concise dictionary is not perfect for high level research) – Yohann V. Jun 29 '15 at 8:00
  • Oh, I am well aware of that. I am not a French scholar by any means. But it is quite a good dictionary and I was surprised not to find it. But your links are interesting. – WS2 Jun 29 '15 at 8:06
  • @WS2 I used wiktionary also but people don't like it there, I find it very nice for etymology, even if meaning is not always correctly explained. – Yohann V. Jun 29 '15 at 8:07
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    See this French dictionary; 1718 for the paysan spelling (païsan before). Negative connotation is very early, by 13th: «nigaud, imbécile; rustre» etc. Thanks. – user98955 Jun 29 '15 at 8:51

@Nancy: Interesting, but the correct way to write that Italian word is "paesani", and it doesn't have negative connotations generally. The Italian word for "peasants" is probably "villani", which does have negative connotations.

(I'm Italian and Italian is my mother tongue; I know I'm not answering the original question--if not indirectly--but I wanted to correct a spelling mistake so I hope this message isn't inappropriate).

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    When you get more points you will be able to use "comments", instead of using an "answer" for a comment such as this. – Hot Licks Oct 12 '19 at 21:51

My decades-old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary says "peasant" came into English as a word for foreigners of low class. I am not sure this has changed much.

So there never really were any British, let alone American, "peasants." One who worked the land but was not a serf might be a "villein" (talk about acquiring negative connotations!).

BTW: In my old New York neighborhood that had a lot of Italian immigrants, my hairdresser had some customers who were "paisani." They came from the same village or same small part of Italy, I gathered, and always brought food or other gifts in return, I think, for a free or heavily discounted haircut. Callie was always glad to see a paisano.

  • However, 'foreign' in the days of peasants, didn't necessarily mean from a different country. It could refer to someone from a different village. – chasly from UK Oct 2 '15 at 22:19

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