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When reading about the differences in the language used by upper-class speakers and middle-class speakers in the 1940s in the US in Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, I encountered that upper-class speakers would say "to employ servants". In contrast, middle-class speakers would use "to hire help".

It's been noted in sociolinguistic research that sometimes middle-class speakers use fancier terms or more euphemisms than upper-class speakers in order to sound more refined. Some examples of this (all of them taken from Noblesse Oblige, by Nancy Mitford) would be the use of "to pass on", "serviette", "lounge", "pardon?" or "dentures" by middle-class speakers instead of "to die", "napkin", "sitting room", "what?" and "false teeth", which were used by upper-class speakers.

For this reason, I was wondering if "to hire help" corresponds to one of those cases in which middle-class speakers would be using a more sophisticated term than upper-class speakers in order to try and sound fancier. Another idea would be that, being non-upper class, they would somehow feel like they were closer in the social hierarchy to those they would employ, while upper-class speakers would feel more distant from them and therefore use the term "servants".

Are any of these ideas correct?

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  • An interesting question, Elisa, and one that's probably difficult to give a decent answer to. I've certainly felt a disparaging flavour in the compound noun ever since reading "Don't talk to the hired help, dear" from the imperious Lady A to her granddaughter Tanya in a book of the d'Alembert series (Smith/Goldin). A connotation rather than a denotation, though, I'd say. Some dictionaries specify the domains 'domestic service' / 'farm labour'. Apr 26, 2023 at 11:34
  • "Hired help" was a euphemism for servants, although I'm unaware of precise social status of those who used it. Whether "to hire help" was used in the same way I'm not sure - are you specifically interested in the verb? (If you "hire help" it doesn't necessarily follow you'll call them "hired help" - there are other related euphemisms like "mother's help(er)" for an au pair/nanny.)
    – Stuart F
    Apr 26, 2023 at 17:06
  • I’m not sure how relevant Nancy Mitford’s observations on the British and French middle classes are to the US. Wasn’t it supposed to be some sort of classless society?
    – David
    Apr 26, 2023 at 17:59
  • I'm not sure "to hire help" is. Referring to an employee or employees as "hired help" can be a euphemism for calling that employee or those employees "servants," especially in a pejorative sense and especially when "the" is used with it and/or a minimizing modifier like "just" appears beforehand. That's why I'm not sure and haven't put an answer, for on one hand, "to hire help" doesn't generally convey that, nor does conjugating it, but on the other hand, using the past-participle "hired" to modify "help" often does convey that, leaving no sure yes or no answer to your question. Apr 26, 2023 at 18:56
  • @David I was just trying to provide some context on examples of middle-class speakers using more sophisticated words or euphemisms than upper-class speakers in the British context that Mitford wrote about. My question refers to whether this phenomenon happened as well in the US context, specifically with the use of "help" instead of "servants" or if this difference in use is just that, a difference. I don't know about the US being a classless society, but I found this example in the book that I mention at the beginning of my question, which talks about different social classes.
    – Elisa
    Apr 27, 2023 at 11:00

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To answer the original question, yes, "hiring help" means the same as hiring servants. I'm not qualified to comment on Philadelphia in the 1940s, but I'll draw a potentially interesting parallel to present-day Singapore, where around 1 in 5 households employ what the government calls Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW).

In the 1980s, FDWs were rarer (1 in 13 households), meaning they were typically employed by wealthy families or expats. At the time, they were nearly universally called maids, or near-equivalent terms like the Cantonese amah.

As the country grew richer and more Singaporean women started working, FDWs became an increasingly affordable way to provide child or elderly care, which many if not most now employed by middle-class households and living in the distinctly non-luxurious public housing apartments that make up 80% of Singapore's housing. They have simultaneously undergone a shift in nomenclature, with Google Trends since 2004 showing a steady drop in "maid", now viewed as demeaning, and a steady increase in "helper".

But in the shopping malls of Singapore you do still on occasion see a FDW wearing a maid uniform, and if you do, they are almost invariably employed by a family wealthy enough to afford multiple FDWs. So where Philadelphia in the 1940s had servants for the rich and help for the middle class, in Singapore in the 2020s it's maids for the rich and helpers for the middle class.

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