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Upper crust

Q From Bill Brown: Although well known here in the US, I have no clue about the origins of the phrase upper crust. I went to the World Wide Words site to search for it but struck out. Our collective guess is it has something to do with baked goods. Can you share the origin of this phrase?

A In trying to get to the root of this dismissive way to describe the upper classes, aristocracy or social elite, we have to start by clearing away the obscuring undergrowth of supposition.

Many sources say it’s from the US. That’s because the Oxford English Dictionary says it is and cites as its first two examples works by Thomas Chandler Haliburton of 1836 and 1843, with a third from John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1848. However, Haliburton wasn’t American but Canadian, from Nova Scotia. And as we shall see, the earliest example isn’t from North America, but Britain.

More disinformation comes from that splendid body of people, the guides who herd tourists around the ancient buildings of Britain. In the kitchens, they explain the old method of baking bread in an oven. This was heated by burning dry twigs in it. The ashes were then raked out and 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 and ashes stuck to it. The upper crust was properly baked, however, and was obviously more desirable. A poet of the eighteenth century put it into verse:

Two Crusts are to be met with in a Loaf,
Who knows it not must be an errant Oaf;
Clean, crisp, and pleasant is the upper Crust,
The under full of Ashes, brown, a-dust.

Grobianus: or, The Compleat Booby, an Ironical Poem, by Friedrich Dedekind. Translated from Latin into English by Roger Bull, 1739.

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 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:

To hear it from the chaffer of a rough and ready costard-monger, ogling his Poll from her walker to her upper crust.

Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, revised by Pierce Egan, 1823. Chaffer: banter; costard-monger: costermonger, a street seller of fruit and vegetables; poll: girlfriend; walker: foot.

This is the first known use of upper crust in the people sense:

One who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-Crust.

Slang: a Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, etc, by John Badcock, published in London in 1823.

As this shows, 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 really were at the top of the social pyramid, the “quality”, though never quite losing its derogatory implications. Haliburton used it in the modern sense in one of his Sam Slick stories in 1843; it may be significant that its title was The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England.

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Page created 21 May 2011