It’s fitting that elite emerged as one of the buzzwords of the 2016 presidential election, because elite is the French word for “selection” or “choice.” The word entered English in the late 14th century, when it signified “a chosen person,” especially a bishop-elect; it died out a few decades later and was re-introduced more successfully in Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823).:
At once the ‘lie’ and the ‘elite’ of crowds;
Who pass like water filter’d in a tank,
All purged and pious from their native clouds
In the poem, lie is pronounced lee, and meant “scummy remnant” (as in the lees at the bottom of a wine barrel).
As the name of a typeface, Elite was first recorded in 1920.
Special Elite typeface, “created to mimic the Smith Corona Special Elite Type No NR6 and Remington Noiseless typewriter models.” Via 1001 Fonts.
In branding, elite is ubiquitous and positive: Elite Model Management, Elite Educational Institute, Elite Singles (“A cut above other dating sites”). An elite athlete competes at a national or international level; an elite tree is favored for seed production.
But in political discourse, elite has become a term of opprobrium. The negative associations may go back to 1950, when David Riesman – author of The Lonely Crowd – was the first to use elitism to signify the quality of being “ascetic or self-righteous.”
That meaning has filtered into political discourse, and now elite appears to mean “anyone who thinks he or she is smarter than I am,” “anyone who lives in a big city,” “anyone who graduated from college,” or – most succinctly – a snob. (Snob is itself a word that’s undergone a dramatic transformation since the late 18th century, when it meant a shoemaker or shoemaker’s apprentice.) The meaning of elite has become so flexible that Donald Trump, the billionaire (by his reckoning) scion of a millionaire real-estate developer, successfully positioned himself as the anti-elite choice. Media on the left, right, and center corroborated the notion that Trump was the non-establishment candidate. A few representative headlines:
“Blame the Elites for the Trump Phenomenon” (The Federalist, September 14, 2016)
“Trump Takes on the Global Elite” (Townhall, October 19, 2016)
“Liberal Elite/Campus Activists Try to Derail Trump Presidency” (South Florida Times, November 24, 2016)
And here’s the mainstream, establishment, “elite” Washington Post on November 19:
In the fall of 2015, before Stephen K. Bannon became a trusted adviser to the next president, he launched a daily three-hour radio show that catered to what he called “those ‘low-information’ citizens who are mocked and ridiculed by their ‘betters’ — the clueless elites.”
And yet, as president-elect, Trump has selected a cabinet whose collective net worth makes it the richest administration in modern American history, as the Post reported on November 30:
Many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies.
How does that jibe with the Trump campaign’s disparagement of “elites”? It doesn’t, writes Steve Benen for MSNBC:
Part of the problem, of course, is that when Trump and [campaign manager Kellyanne] Conway condemn the “elites,” they’re not using a definition of the word found in any dictionary. A billionaire celebrity gets elected, he recruits billionaires and multimillionaires to help lead his administration, and together they advance a policy agenda intended to benefit other billionaires and multimillionaires? None of this, according to Trump World, is evidence of elitism.
On the contrary, they consider it “populism.” …
In Trump World, the “elite” care about niceties such as diversity and multiculturalism. The “elite” place a high value on annoyances like the Geneva Conventions and arithmetic. The “elite” were bothered by Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women, mocking those with physical disabilities, condemning immigrants, and denigrating veterans and their families.
The “elite” might take your hard-earned tax dollars and give to those other people who don’t really deserve it and certainly haven’t earned it. The “elite” may or may not include billionaire celebrities – it depends entirely on their political perspective.
You could see it as Orwellian Newspeak, as the historian Simon Schama evidently does.
In Trumpland facts are elite, truth is elite, integrity is elite, honesty is elite, the majority of American voters are elite! https://t.co/3WtGJvtsG8— Simon Schama (@simon_schama) December 9, 2016
One final note on elite: The computer-world slang term leet – an alternative alphabet based on character substitution for letters – was derived from elite (or eleet); it originated in the 1980s on bulletin board systems, or BBS, where having “elite” status allowed a user access to special files and chat rooms. An example of leet is LEET, which could be spelled numerically as 1337.