peasant as a word not used in everyday BE?

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little_rabbit123

Member
Chinese
Hi,

I read a short piece of writing. It said that,

The word "peasant" is not used in England, except as an insult or as a joke. We have no peasant class, only agricultural labourers. We do not have a system, as in other parts of Europe, whereby people inherit a small patch of land and work it for substance.

Is this explanantion valid? Why when there is no "peasant class", people should avoid using the word "peasant" as well in England?

Does it make any difference to use "farmer" and "peasant"?
I suppose, if England has no "peasant", it must have no "farmer" as well.

But the text goes on to say they do have "tenant-farmers".


So I am really wondering whether the use of "peasant" and "farmer" is so unique at least in British English, as written in that article.
Besides, do Americans avoid "peasant" or "farmer" as much as possible too, in your daily life?
Is there any real difference between the words "peasant" and "farmer"?
Or, as the article implied, the word "peasant" at least is associated in BE with "old system" or "fedual society"? (the article did not use those words, but mentioned that inheriting land is a practice in systems adopted in some other European countries)
 
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  • panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The word "peasant" is used whenever it is appropriate, but it would not be relevant in relation to modern agriculture in Britain.
    Here are some relevant comments from the OED definition.
    A person who lives in the country and works on the land, esp. as a smallholder or a labourer; (chiefly Sociol.) a member of an agricultural class dependent on subsistence farming.
    Now used esp. with reference to foreign countries (or to Britain and Ireland in earlier times), and often to denote members of the lowest and poorest rank of society (sometimes contrasted with prince or noble).
    It's important also to be aware of other uses of "peasant". Again from the OED:
    As a term of abuse: a person of low social status; an ignorant, stupid, unsophisticated, or (formerly esp.) unprincipled person; a boor, a lout; (also more generally) a person who is regarded with scorn or contempt, esp. by members of a particular social group.
    The meaning of "farmer" is very different. The most relevant definition:
    One who cultivates a farm, whether as tenant or owner; one who ‘farms’ land, or makes agriculture his occupation.
     

    little_rabbit123

    Member
    Chinese
    Thank you for the detailed definitions.

    But if 'peasant' is indecent, is 'labourer' decent? (The article used the phrase 'agricultural labourers'.) In my view, a labourer is a person who sells their physical labour. Whether one sells physical strength in industries or on land, no big difference!
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Neither 'peasant' nor 'labourer' is indecent, little_rabbit. 'Peasant' can be used in BrE, jokingly or scornfully, as a term of abuse. 'Labourer' can't be.
     
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    sgtudor1965

    Member
    English, USA
    Quick comment on American usage. Farmer is the term used for someone who owns and works the land, whether or not their farm is small. If they don't own the land, they are typically called laborers, or farm workers, or something similar. Peasant connotes not just a function but also a social class, and since we refer to social classes quite rarely it is not used. That is, you would not refer to anyone in America as a peasant, other than as a joke or an odd insult. In can certainly be used to refer to laborers in another country, though, if the term is appropriate.
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    Inasmuch as farms in the United States tend to be large and worth upwards of a million dollars, not to mention having hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of agricutultural equipment, the farmers, not infrequently college-educated, who own them and work them with their families scarcely could be called "peasants."
     

    little_rabbit123

    Member
    Chinese
    All of your explanations help me reunderstand the word 'peasant', since it carries so many implications with it.

    But in my early stage of English learning, I don't remember the word being associated with any political implications. In our textbook, it is almost always used interchangeably with 'farmer'. Although one of my teachers did seem to suggest that 'farmer' is more often used nowadays, esp. when referring to those who own a large farm and employ labourers to work the land. It seems easy to understand, but it turns out difficult to comprehend fully.
     
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    little_rabbit123

    Member
    Chinese
    But we have to use various model tests, since used authentic tests are limited in number.

    Sometimes in authentic tests, there seem to be some dubious items.

    We are not informed who designed these tests: experts home or abroad? Why don't they consult native English speakers on those dubious items?
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    <<...>>

    As for the word 'peasant', it clearly has different sociological and historical connotations in different cultures. Here in the UK the word makes me, and I think most people, think of feudalism in the Middle Ages (around the 1400's), with a sharp division of society into lords and peasants. On the continent of Europe the idea of a peasant (one closer to your near-synonym of 'farmer') lasted longer. But in the UK it definitely has a pejorative sound.
     
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    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    The Monthly Review, 1792, is the sole Google Books listing of "American peasants" from 1600 to 1800. This supports GWB's statement.


    ...and let them recollect, as a warning against it, that a rude, undisciplined rabble of American peasants, goaded by oppression, and defending their own native territories, repelled and conquered the best-conditioned regular troops that ever faced an enemy...
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    Note that the example Cuchu gave came from British, and not an American, publication, and that in combination with the words "rude", "undisciplined", and "rabble", it is clearly meant not as a literal description but as a general pejorative term -- very much as Elwintee said.
     

    iconoclast

    Senior Member
    english - anglo-irish
    In Latin America, where subsistence agriculture is still the way of life for millions. its practitioners are called "campesinos" (inhabitants of the fields). As previous posts have pointed out, since the socio-economic conditions that support a peasantry have long ceased to exist in the English-speaking world, and since the word 'peasant' has pejorative connotations, the English word used here in the Americas is campesino.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think you've had a lot of good advice here, Little Rabbit. I came from England to a rural French community where the equivalent word to peasant is quite complimentary - it means someone who owns his own land - and the equivalent word to farmer is pejorative - it means someone who farms someone else's land. This takes a little getting used to, if you have been brought up in the United Kingdom.

    You perhaps need to remember that as recently as the 1970's a country like France had 7% of its working population in farming, when the UK was down to about 2%, and in France farming was often a way of life for the whole family, which hasn't so often been the case for a long time in the UK. These differences are reflected in language - it takes an urban society to turn peasant into an insult.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Thank you for the detailed definitions.

    But if 'peasant' is indecent, is 'labourer' decent? (The article used the phrase 'agricultural labourers'.) In my view, a labourer is a person who sells their physical labour. Whether one sells physical strength in industries or on land, no big difference!
    Just wanted to add that physical labour is not necessarily seen as 'low' or demeaning in many English-speaking contexts. I don't know if this is different in China, though I am aware that the term peasant continues to be used in the Chinese context. Terms like farmer, farm labourer, farm hand, farm worker are connotationally neutral.
     

    iconoclast

    Senior Member
    english - anglo-irish
    Thomas Tompion's comment rings true. I only worked for three years on the grape harvest in a poor part of the Bordeaux region, and I spent a year in small university town-cum-rural Germany - all back in the 70s - but in those days the physical shell (in Germany at least) and the apparent reality (in France) of the traditional commune was reflected still in people's lifestyles and attitudes, and in France at least one was proud to be a (land-owning) "peasant".

    To be a landless labourer in England from the 18th century on was to be a member of a rural landless lumpenproletariat - the lowest of the low - and not much has changed except there's many fewer of them today.

    Ironically, British government policy in Ireland after the Great Famine of the mid-19th century created a new class of small proprietor farmers (who were previously tenants) at the time that proto-agribiz was consolidating land in other Anglo regions. In the north of Ireland at least, they still exist, a cousin of mine being one.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    it takes an urban society to turn peasant into an insult.
    Not so. The farming portion of the American population remained substantial until the Second World War, and remains substantial in certain states even today. To this day, things that are rural or "country" are highly valued in the US, and farmers remain a highly respected group. However, even at the time that the majority of Americans were engaged in agriculture, the word "peasant" was not in use, for the simple reason that freeholding American farmers were not "peasants" in the sense that tenant European agricultural workers were "peasants". Any wheat farmer in Kansas, or any potato farmer in Maine, would be happy to be called a "farmer", but would be highly insulted to be called a "peasant", and the offense has absolutely nothing to do with being a member of an "urban society."
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Hi,

    I read a short piece of writing. It said that,

    The word "peasant" is not used in England, except as an insult or as a joke. We have no peasant class, only agricultural labourers. We do not have a system, as in other parts of Europe, whereby people inherit a small patch of land and work it for substance.

    Is this explanantion valid? Why when there is no "peasant class", people should avoid using the word "peasant" as well in England?

    Does it make any difference to use "farmer" and "peasant"?
    I suppose, if England has no "peasant", it must have no "farmer" as well.

    But the text goes on to say they do have "tenant-farmers".


    So I am really wondering whether the use of "peasant" and "farmer" is so unique at least in British English, as written in that article.
    Besides, do Americans avoid "peasant" or "farmer" as much as possible too, in your daily life?
    Is there any real difference between the words "peasant" and "farmer"?
    Or, as the article implied, the word "peasant" at least is associated in BE with "old system" or "fedual society"? (the article did not use those words, but mentioned that inheriting land is a practice in systems adopted in some other European countries)
    This Wikipedia article shows a distinction between tenant farmer and other terms. In the following, I have placed the terms discussed in bold type.

    Tenant farming was important in the U.S. from the 1870s to the present. Tenants typically bring their own tools and animals. It is distinguished from both being a "hired hand" and being a sharecropper.
    A hired hand is an agricultural employee even though he or she may live on the premises and exercise a considerable amount of control over the agricultural work, such as a foreman. A sharecropper is a farm tenant who pays rent with a portion (often half) of the crop he raises and who brings little to the operation besides his family labour; the landlord usually furnishing working stock, tools, fertilizer, housing, fuel, and seed, and often providing regular advice and oversight.
    Farmers are proud to be farmers, and the term would certainly not be avoided in American English. I haven't personally known any tenant farmers, but I expect that if you asked them their occupation, there would be a high probability of them identifying themselves as simply "farmer."
     

    iskndarbey

    Senior Member
    US, English
    I remember on a recent season of The Real World there was a cast member who annoyed everybody with his habit of calling people peasants. This was the first time I had heard the word used in that way.
     

    thuja

    Senior Member
    english; united states
    I actually think that many AE users today do not really know who/what a peasant is, and it is probably a word used mostly by educated people, when talking about rural populations in other countries, or other times--medieval Europe, or China, or mid-19th-century Ireland, for example.

    Applied to other Americans, it is, as has been stated, a humorous insult, but not a very common one. Synonyms would be, for example, rube, boob, hick, yokel. If you called someone a peasant in a bar, it would probably not cause a fight, because they wouldn´t know what you were talking about.
     

    MJRupeJM

    Senior Member
    USA
    English- U.S.
    I think the use of "peasant" as an insult in AE is more based on social class than rural vs. urban. "Peasant" more likely describes a poor, ignorant, unsophisticated person, a "rube," or a "plebe," rather than a "hick", "yokel", or "redneck."

    E.g. A celebrity might insultingly call the fans around her "peasants," while a kid from New York City would call a kid from Kansas "hick" rather than "peasant."
     
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