According to Wikipedia, “creamy layer is a term used in Indian politics to refer to members of a backward class who are highly advanced socially as well as economically and educationally, and not eligible for government-sponsored educational and professional benefit programs.”

What is the etymology of this term? Not being a speaker of Indian English, the words “creamy” and “layer” both strike me as unusual descriptors for classes of people. Is there a connection to the idiom “cream of the crop”?

  • Isn't this what Americans call being in the donut hole? I picture an Oreo cookie's creamy middle, as the poor who are advanced are still poor yet not poor enough to quailify for assistance. Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 10:58
  • That term is also new to me! This seems to be something different, though, as it includes people who are potentially very wealthy (ie. would not fall in the donut hole) but are members of a backward class by reason of their caste, which is inherited.
    – sjy
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 11:25
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    ...but the usage will almost certainly derive "directly" from the more literal sense of the layer of cream that "floats" to the surface in a container filled with milk, not by further extension from the already far more metaphorical cream of the crop. Expressions like the cream of society (the social elite, who rise to the top) have been around for centuries. Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 11:34
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    "The term creamy layer was first coined by Justice Krishna Iyer in 1975 in State of Kerala vs NM Thomas case...". Wikipedia also explains what it is supposed to mean.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 12:02
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    If the Wikipedia article itself isn't enough, it provides a lot of references.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 12:05

1 Answer 1


Justice Krishna Iyer of India first used the term in a 1975 court case. The "creamy layer" is the top layer of the Other Backward Class, which might receive a disproportionate amount of the benefits of a quota (reservation) system (Wikipedia).

The phrase is very likely a metaphor that relies on the physical phenomenon of cream rising to the top of raw milk (naturally) or other substances like coffee (after cream has been added, over time) (see Wikipedia, "Cream"). This substance is particularly rich in fat and flavor compared to the rest of the milk, which makes it form a layer at the top (from The Prairie Homestead, "How to Separate Cream from Milk":

enter image description here

That is literally a creamy layer!

Incidentally, cream has been used figuratively to mean the best in English since the 16th century (Oxford English Dictionary, "cream, n.2," def. 3). So there is also a bias in English to think of cream in a superlative sense, especially in the later idiom the cream of the crop.


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