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A pleb is a common person, one who is not a member of the aristocracy.

That, at least, is its real meaning. The word goes back to Roman times: The plebs constituted that section of the population that did not have the privileges attached to the older Roman families, the patricians. A member of the plebs was a plebeian or, since the 18th century, pleb.

It’s hardly surprising that such a class-based word would find its way into English usage sooner or later. Roman plebs gradually gained legal and economic equality. No doubt, though, the patricians still secretly looked down their Roman noses at them.

In ordinary use, it is more likely to be used in an ironic sense, contrasting the “plebs” in question with someone whose ideas above their station are drawn attention to. “I’d better get technical support to install this — we plebs aren’t supposed to do that kind of thing.”

Sometimes, however, it is just the term of disdain it seems to be: “No, you can’t have tomato ketchup. Don’t be such a pleb.”

Sometimes it is not clear whether the speaker is using the word ironically or not. “They say David Beckham likes this restaurant, but they put him in a special room upstairs so he doesn’t have to eat with the plebs.” In the media age, celebrity is, for many, the new aristocracy. Whether the speaker accepts the overlordship of the famous footballer must be determined from their tone of voice.

Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at: uknews@estripes.osd.mil

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