November 27, 2005

Elite individuals

I've always thought of elite as a collective noun -- when people talk about "an elite," I assume they're referring to particular group and not simply a person who has elite characteristics.

Shows how much I know. The other day I was looking at the conservative talk-show star Laura Ingraham's book Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America and was brought up short by a whole clutch of sentences like:

As I said, being an elite is not necessarily about being a liberal and/or a Democrat. There are plenty of capitalist elites atop some of American's great corporations...

[Vincente Fox] can divert Mexico's excess labor force northwards to work in such minimum-wage jobs as looking after the elites' children, painting elites' houses, mowing the elites' lawns, and cleaning elites' homes.

What's up with that? Had I stumbled on a right-wing plot to subvert the semantics of English collective nouns?

As it happens, Ingraham isn't the only conservative who's in on this. John Leo writes:

We are seeing the bitterness of elites who wish to lead, confronted by multitudes who do not wish to follow.

National Review's Romesh Ponnuru writes:

For these people, the trouble with the federal government is not that it is too big but that it is run by elites who are disloyal to them.

In the Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz says:

They charge, for instance, that such programs appeal to white elites who wish to separate their children from blacks and to religious parents who wish to separate their children from the secular world.

(True, not all of these are unquestionably references to individuals, but that seems to be the most obvious reading.)

It turns out, though, that you can also find the usage among writers on the other side of the table, like Jim Hightower and Thomas Frank:

Excuse me, but where is the morality in cutting back on granny's small retirement check while rushing to pad the huge inheritances of Paris Hilton and other elites who live on their parents' wealth?

According to market populism, elites are not those who, say, watch sporting events from a skybox, or spend their weekends tooling about on a computer-driven yacht, or fire half their work force and ship the factory south

But then we've been down this road before. It used to be that you could only use minority as a collective noun; now it's all over the place as an individual-denoting term:

The fact that Asians, who are overrepresented on many of the best campuses, are minorities who contribute to campus diversity is downplayed. (Beth Henary in The Weekly Standard):

Of the ten sports offered, two have more than one or two minorities on the entire roster. ( Katheryn Jean Lopez in National Review).

But I did hear from a handful of minorities who said they've been verbally abused at rock concerts. ( Richard Roeper, in the Chicago Sun-Times).

Maybe it's a natural semantic change. Times was when cohort was restricted to use as a collective noun, and so was comrade (at least if you take it back to its Spanish etymon camarada, "group sharing a room"). But with political terms, you have to wonder why it has happened selectively -- why don't we see majority used this way? Beats me.

Update, 11/28: Mark points out that there are in fact some uses of majority as an individual-denoting term out there; he gives this cite, for example:

Well its all about being a minority, even minority experience, in my case, I grew up as a majority.

But Mark suggests that "such usage is not very common yet," and the numbers seem to bear that out. Google turns up 493 hits for "handful of minorities," almost all of them (including 19 of the first 20) involving the usage in question, whereas a search on "handful of majorities" turns up no hits at all.

Update, 12/3: Ranesh Ponnru responds that the use of elite for individuals "rings false" to him, and that he doesn't think he's using the word in that sense in the sentence I linked to (which is not the same one I cited above -- I got my links crossed). The sentence in question is:

Among the small band of Catholic elites who are pro-life liberals, it may be that the felt imperative to maintain friendly terms with pro-abortion Catholic liberals sways people's views on the communion question.

I interpreted this as an individual-denoting use of elite because a band of seems to suggest a group of individuals rather than a group of groups; to my mind, "a small band of elite groups" would sound odd in this context. But Ponnru is a pretty careful and lucid writer, so I'd be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

For another point about Ponnru's response, see this.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at November 27, 2005 02:42 PM