Is there a single word (noun) that describes someone who was born into a lower social class family, but struggled along to a higher social class with his/her own efforts? Idioms are also welcome.

For example, I have a friend who is such a person. He has very uneducated parents who also had a lot of financial problems when he was a kid. He grew up with no toys, with clothes from his older siblings, without much of a social environment. His parents just attended primary school before they immigrated to Europe, so his parents also could not guide him and motivate him for education. He was, however, able to graduate from one of the best technical universities without any support of others, including his parents.

I wanted to tell him that he is a ______, but I did not know what word would fit to describe him.

  • 1
    OK, this question could be a winner, it might hit the HNQ but...it lacks a bit more detail and a sentence where you would use this single word. One last thing, are you looking for a noun, or an adjective, and do you absolutely rule out idioms?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 11:02
  • 1
    A added some more context. I hope it is ok now. I‘m sorry for my incomplete question, I‘m new on this site. I will be more precise in the future :)
    – Said Savci
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 11:40
  • @HotLicks He is not a member of the lower class.
    – Said Savci
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 11:58
  • 1
    "New money", said with a sneer by old money. Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 16:34
  • 3
    Note that what you are describing here seems to be more of a change in economic class, rather than social one. A person can be a self-made man or woman, even become extremely wealthy (e.g. Warren Buffet & Sam Walton), without becoming or wanting to become a member of the upper social classes. By the same token, one can be an upper class person living in "genteel poverty".
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 17:43

14 Answers 14


Self-made man -- Wikipedia

A "self-made man" or "self-made woman" is a person who was born poor or otherwise disadvantaged, but who achieves economic or other success thanks to their own hard work and ingenuity rather than because of any inherited fortune, family connections, or other privileges.


You could also call this someone who has “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”:

Meaning: Improve your situation by your own efforts.

For example, James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922:

“There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”

Kunitz & Haycraft's British Authors of the 19th Century:

“A poet who lifted himself by his own boot-straps from an obscure versifier to the ranks of real poetry.”

Here, the expression is used to describe competency, but I think it can also be used in the sense of improving one's social lot.

Source: phrases.org.uk

  • 11
    It should be noted that this expression was originally intended ironically: it isn't physically possible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Also of note: when the first electronic computers were built, they didn't automatically start computing when the power was turned on: some human intervention was required to start the process of loading and running a program. One of the triumphs of early computing was writing a "bootstrap loader"; this eventually led to the phrase "booting up".
    – MT_Head
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 18:37
  • 1
    There's also a noun form, bootstrapper, that could fill the OP's blank in the sample sentence.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 0:03
  • Since it's impossible to physically do this (as per @MT_Head 's comment), this almost sounds like it's a tongue-in-cheek lie that hides the real (much more mundane) reason. Similar to Jack Sparrow's "sea turtles strapped to my feet" explanation of how he escaped the island he was stranded on.
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 10:08
  • 1
    Indeed. There's something pleasantly Munchausenesque about it.
    – Matt S.
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 19:17
  • 1
    By his Bootstraps is an early work by Robert Heinlein, about time-travel.
    – ab2
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 9:28

The Romans called this kind of person a Novus homo, literally "new man", when referring to those who achieved Patrician status without inheriting it.

: new man : man newly ennobled : arriviste

  • 8
    Novus homo is quite different to what this question is asking for. In Roman times, it had a much more specific meaning (‘the first in a family to serve in the senate or as consul’) which doesn’t apply at all. In modern English, its meaning is closer to nouveau riche or upstart; that is, essentially the same thing, but disparagingly described from the point of view of the old elite, rather than admiringly described from the outside. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 9:48
  • Huh, must have missed that nuance in my class...well, it was based on what I learned in high school. Anyway, I mainly suggested it because Latin phrases are often used as single words, and none of the answers so far have technically been single words.
    – NXTangl
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 5:53

In the US, you may call him a Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger
of or characteristic of the heroes in the novels of Horatio Alger, who begin life in poverty and achieve success and wealth through honesty, hard work, and virtuous behavior:


  • 6
    Which alas is a poor metaphor, given that hero frequently got ahead by buddying up to a rich guy, and Alger himself died in poverty.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 11:59
  • 13
    Seems fairly obscure to most readers, I think. I've never heard the term and would never be able to glean the meaning from context, so I'd avoid it.
    – kettlecrab
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 19:50
  • 6
    I'm college educated in the US and have no clue what "Horatio Alger" would imply. I think it is a character name from a book...
    – Ron Jensen
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 4:41
  • 4
    I would prefer something like *a Horatio Alger story/hero" or the adjective "Horatio Algeresque", but that is the reference that springs to mind for me for this kind of meritocratic myth.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 14:08
  • 8
    -1 I think this is too obscure to be a good fit. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 18:14

The situation is also informally called rags to riches -- Wikipedia

So, the friend is a rags-to-riches person, or, he went from rags to riches (if he becomes really rich, that is)..

Richness doesn't always have to be about money. Rich in skills, social status, friends, knowledge, etc. can apply.

Rags to riches refers to any situation in which a person rises from poverty to wealth, and in some cases from absolute obscurity to heights of fame—sometimes instantly. This is a common archetype in literature and popular culture (for example, the writings of Horatio Alger, Jr.).

Not necessarily from winning lotteries or getting inheritance. Wikipedia lists a lot of names of famous people who faced many hardships and poverty in their path to success. They didn't win lotteries. It was their hard work and determination, and some good luck.

  • 2
    "rags to riches" might happen in the case of winning the lottery, or an inheritance.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 7:26
  • 5
    The idiom, "rags to riches" means exactly that the person came to great (and perhaps fortuitous) wealth. It is not used in cases where people have struggled to overcome their background and poverty to successfully complete their university studies.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 9:23
  • 2
    Not necessarily from winning lotteries. See the Wikipedia link in my answer. It lists a hundred names of famous people who faced many hardships and poverty in their path to success. They didn't win lotteries. It was their hard work and determination, and some good luck.
    – NVZ
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 9:27
  • @NVZ - that's not what was claimed. Mari-Lou didn't say that "rags to riches" means you win lottery, but that includes such cases, which is not compatible with what OP is asking for.
    – Davor
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 11:07
  • @Davor NVZ is using "winning lotteries" as a stand in for any unforeseen, unearned fortune that results in great wealth. Mari-Lou is saying exactly what NVZ understands her to be saying, and NVZ is correct. While the phrase can be used for such events, it can also be used for someone who worked very hard for their success. It may be a good choice in some contexts in spite of its more inclusive nature. This is more a matter of what aspects of the person's attainment of wealth you wish to emphasize. All that said, "rags to riches" probably does not emphasize the hard work the OP wishes to.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 23:28

Although you asked for a single word so this does not fit but an expression commonly used for this is

climb the social ladder

He climbed the social ladder well



You will find this expression being used in literature as well. Here is one random example

Admiral Barceló was one of those glory-covered heroes who became rich and climbed up the social ladder without coming from a family of hidalgos.

Source: Google Books; José Raúl Capablanca: A Chess Biography

I think many of the suggestions on this post do portray a situation where someone became rich after hard work but do not necessarily express the social element explicitly and this term is more suitable.

  • 3
    I have also heard the term 'social climber' to describe a person who has climbed the social ladder.
    – MMAdams
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 15:11
  • 4
    Social climber has a negative connotation, implying that the person is solely interested in social status and not actual personal achievement.
    – barbecue
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 16:27

The word parvenu could work, although it's considered slightly insulting.

one that has recently or suddenly risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth or power and has not yet gained the prestige, dignity, or manner associated with it

For a more complimentary version, try social-climber or upstart[n].

one who attempts to gain a higher social position or acceptance in fashionable society

one that has risen suddenly (as from a low position to wealth or power)

EDIT: As Mike Scott mentioned, upstart actually has negative connotations , and I would say social-climber does as well unless used carefully. Be cautious of these words and the context. They are probably not suitable to the OP's case, even if they do describe the activity mentioned.

  • 2
    "Upstart" is not complimentary.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 19:31
  • I've never regarded "social climber" as negative, other than implying that said person started from a lower position. But that's exactly what any other equivalent term would imply also.
    – beldaz
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 6:11

In the not necessarily virtuous view of social status, it could be social climber (or even suckhole).

  • 3
    Please add explanations for your suggestions.
    – Helmar
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 8:34
  • This is exactly the phrase that came to mind. But @icanfathom has posted a more complete answer.
    – beldaz
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 6:09

I wanted to tell him that he is an example of self-edification.

The noun edification is extremely formal but I think it befits the situation described by the OP. English Oxford Dictionaries define it as: The moral or intellectual instruction or improvement of someone.

The following is a snippet from The New Yorker, May 18, 2017

This would become a recurring theme for Cornell, who wrote often of his own self-edification and of trying to be a better man. Of course, being better is hard.


If a military analogy would be appropriate, you could compare him to any of the small number of military officers who have arisen from private to General. Note that the U.S. Military calls such individuals mustangs

Here are a few well known individuals who have achieved this distinction:


New Money or "Nouveau Riche"

"Nouveau riche" (French: 'new rich' [nuvo ʁiʃ]) is a term, usually derogatory, to describe those whose wealth has been acquired within their own generation, rather than by familial inheritance. The equivalent English term is the "new rich" or "new money" (in contrast with "old money"/"vieux riche").1 Sociologically, "nouveau riche" refers to the man or woman who previously had belonged to a lower social class and economic stratum (rank) within that class; and that the new money, which constitutes his or her wealth, allowed upward social mobility and provided the means for conspicuous consumption, the buying of goods and services that signal membership in an upper class. As a pejorative term, "nouveau riche" effects distinctions of type, the given stratum within a social class; hence, among the rich people of a social class, "nouveau riche" describes the vulgarity and ostentation of the new-rich man and woman who lack the worldly experience and the system of values of old money, of inherited wealth, such as the patriciate, the nobility and the gentry.


A parvenu is a person who is a relative newcomer to a socioeconomic class. The word is borrowed from the French language; it is the past participle of the verb parvenir (to reach, to arrive, to manage to do something).

  • 3
    The OP wants to congratulate and pay his friend a great compliment, saying he now belongs to the nouveau rich is a bit of a slur. That along with "parvenu" are usually said by snobs. The friend has completed his university course alone and without any financial assistance from his parents. He is not wealthy, not yet, but that is beside the point. The focus should be on his achievement.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 9:15
  • What Mari-Lou A said, but stronger - this answer is completely wrong in the context of the OP
    – peterG
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 13:39
  • Personally, I think "New Money" could be applicable. Nothing in the description specifically says "Please make the term positive". The person is described positively (Hard worker, educated, etc)... but New Money still describes a "First Generation" rich person.
    – WernerCD
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 19:18
  • 1
    "New Money still describes a "First Generation" rich person" - yes it does, but in a strongly pejorative way. See also 'someone who buys his own furniture'
    – peterG
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 22:08

You could call your friend Transcendent

To be transcendent:

To be transcendent is to be One that surpasses expectations.


Transcending is the act of overcoming or surpassing all the obstacles or barriers both physical and metaphysical that can prevent one from successfully reaching a destination that is thought to be unreachable either physical or metaphysical.

To transcend:

To transcend is to reach a place not thought to be reachable by others in a similar position, including social, economic, moral, physical, and metaphysical

Since your friend was capable of facing obstacles and barriers that are thought to be impassible by his kind (kind refers to social class and upbringing).

Your friend would have been lifted by the bootstraps as he "climbed the social ladder" to become a "successful" "achiever". resembling a rags to riches story deserving of the title self-made man, as the odds were against him and it was of his own hard work and ingenuity that he obtained the self edification of becoming a Novus homo. Much like those compared to the heroes of an Horatio Alger novel a name reserved only for those capable of "Transcending" the constructs of their world on the way to becoming transcendent and surpassing the limits placed upon them throughout life. The act of Transcendency.

  • The word should be Transcendent rather than Transcendental which is a form of meditation.
    – Elliot
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 3:06
  • meditation is a noun, which makes transcendental an adjective. adjectives are descriptors used to further explain something. this in itself means that it cannot respectively be considered a "form" of meditation, but rather a "type" a red car is a type of car and cannot be considered a form that it can become. a car cannot take on the form of the color red, it can however take on the form of a type of car such as a red car. as for the word choice i chose the word correctly. transcendental is like the age old saying of sun Tzu ( not quoted) you must know the enemy as well as you know yourself. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 3:52
  • i have limited space to write in a comment or i would have elaborated as to how and why. I'm starting to see that technicalities are the primary tool of both deeming an answer correct as well as proving it incorrect. vague obscurity when determining the possibility of being the right answer. meanwhile Relentless scrutiny when scouring for even the slightest sign of error. i wrote an explanation longer than half of the responses combined and it was met with a single response that the word was conjugated incorrectly. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 4:12
  • 2
    @Mari-Lou A I would like to say thank you for putting things into perspective. Initially it can be hard to take criticism and my first reaction was indeed, the wrong response. I will try my best to incorporate your words. In my edit. Do you think I could post a question asking the difference between a self made man and a man of self making on this thread? If not do you know of a more suitable thread to post a question like that ? I'm still learning the rules and courtesies of this forum. I will work on weeding out the unnecessary wall of text, although I can see I have a long way to go. Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 0:38
  • 1
    You can, of course, write a new question asking precisely that. You may even add a link to this question for context. Good edit by the way! Very nice how you weaved all the answers in one narrative.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 9:17

In one word for your sentence you could call them an "Achiever". It is succinct and would be understood to mean the individual has achieved great things. It would not betray the starting point but would imply the results. Using "high achiever" would be redundant since it would not be notable otherwise, just as "quality" is often used to describe things as high quality without the extra word.


I think the word 'successful' is sufficient.

One only needs to achieve success - in whatever one does - to achieve a reputation among one's fellows, I find.

As the Proverb says, 'Seest thou a man diligent in his business ? He shall stand before kings.' Proverbs 22:29.

  • 2
    This is a political opinion rather than an answer to OP's question. Call it class, call it whatever you want, it's clear what OP is asking: how to describe someone who has ended up in a much better position socioeconomically than their parents, or from where they started. You can pretend class isn't a useful construct all you want but the fact is in most or all of the English speaking world, the circumstances in which you are born greatly affect the probability of where you're likely to end up.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 18:24
  • I disagree but would not want to offend. So edited out.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 18:57
  • Fair play, I'd love to argue the point, but this isn't the place for it. Peace
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 19:51
  • I think I've fixed it now. Thank you for pointing it out.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 19:57
  • no worries, thanks for reminding me to cleanup the comment thread
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 9:39

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