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15 August 2011

Monday's Words - 'Upper Crust'

"Historical writers sometimes refer to the upper classes as 'the upper crust', but have you ever wondered where the term came from?  According to *Michael Quinion, in his 'World Wide Words' site, one suggestion is:

"......the old method of baking bread in an oven. This was heated by burning dry twigs in it and after raking out the ashes, the bread dough was put in to bake. The bottom of the resulting loaf was over-baked because it was sitting on the hot oven floor; ashes also stuck to it. The upper crust was properly baked, however, and was obviously more desirable......

......Tourist guides will explain that the upper crust was reserved for the master and mistress of the household and that the term "upper crust" was transferred to its consumers. The first part is probably true but the second isn't. There's no evidence for the term having evolved as a reference to the better bits of bread being reserved
for the highest-ranking members of a household, apart from a much-quoted oblique reference in John Russell's Book of Nurture of 1460, which reads, in modern English: "Cut the upper crust [of the loaf]
for your sovereign".

There have been other senses of "upper crust". The most common in the eighteenth century was of the upper surface of the earth and by analogy the crust that forms on the surface of partially melted and refrozen snow or on the mud of a partially dried-out pond. In the early nineteenth century, it became slang for a hat or the head......

...... "upper crust" was initially low slang, an insulting reference to people who considered themselves a cut above the rest. By this time, "upper crust" was so fixed a phrase in various senses that it's doubtful whether a direct mental link with bread was in its coiners' minds. The stress here was on "upper", as a symbol of
supposed superiority.

Even though it was originally British, it rapidly spread to North America and later to the rest of the English-speaking world; in the process it shifted sense to refer to those who were actually at the top of the social pyramid, the "quality", though never quite losing its derogatory implications."

Have you ever used the phrase 'upper crust' yourself? And if so do you have any other ideas as to its possible origins?

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*World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2011. All rights reserved. The Words website is at http://www.worldwidewords.org .