Before I came to college, I had never heard of the word “bougie.” So before I dive into my discussion of the slang term, I’ll define it for those of you that might have been under that rock with me. Urban Dictionary explains it as the following: “aspiring to be a higher class than one is” or describing “anything that is perceived as ‘upscale’.”
The number of times I have heard this word used since the beginning of the semester is astounding. It’s as much of the current language as celebrity gossip and social media. I’ve heard it used to describe food, coffee, pastimes, clothes, even earbuds. It’s said casually, off-handed, yet there always seems to be an underlying bite to it, no matter how subtle. Perhaps it doesn’t register with other people or they simply take it differently, but this hints at the origin of bougie and its more than 300-year-old history.
Bougie comes from the noun bourgeoisie, and its adjective form bourgeois, which comes from the Old French word bourg, which translates to “town.” Hence, bourgeoisie refers to someone who lived within the confines of a city rather than out in the country. In medieval times, this meant middle-class merchants, artisans, and similar workers who relied on the sale and use of certain physical materials to make their living. This class of professionals expanded during the Industrial Revolution, as the invention of factories and mass production gave rise to entirely new professions. In France, this class was further divided into the petite and haute bourgeoisie as a sign of societal advancement. This was the peak of the bourgeoisie.
Based on this, it just means middle class, right? There is no negative connotation like with our modern version of the word. This hints that our bougie evolved from Marxist theory, named after Karl Marx, the man who wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Like other proponents of Communism, Marx saw anyone who controlled capital (capitalists), which can refer to financial prosperity or resources like goods, land, and labor, as being capable of exploiting the lower class. Therefore, their economic success, and subsequent perceived “materialistic” lifestyle, was created on the backs of working individuals and was scrupulously corrupt. Marx criticized them for their economic choices and supposed lack of morals.
Doesn’t that sound a little more like bougie we’re familiar with? Perhaps you’ve heard a variant of these examples: such as when someone criticizes their friend for buying an $8 latte or eating at a restaurant with $20 appetizers or this stellar line from Urban Dictionary: “You can eat your bougie $25.99 salad from Central Market for lunch, but I’m hanging with Mickey D’s!”. Ignoring the derisive tone that no doubt would accompany this statement, solely based on this backstory that we have learned, whenever we use bougie to describe something, we are telling that person that they are materialistic and shallow, that their choices are essentially unconscionable. At heart, this probably stems from jealousy (wouldn’t we all like to have an $8 latte every morning?), but the use of this word has a deeper meaning than that by those who know the history behind it.
So before we assess someone’s entire character based on something as petty as their drink choices, we might want reign in our jealousy and judgment and think. Discriminating against someone not because they are a bad person, but simply for their economic choices is as bad as discriminating for anything else. We are not to judge someone for anything we see on the surface. Even if you think that someone’s spending habits are excessive, it is their hard earned money to do with as they please. Most of us are not born into vast amounts of wealth, so if we spend an exorbitant amount of money, it means we worked hard to save it. This goes along the same lines as not asking how much someone makes or splitting a joint bill at a restaurant evenly: it is just being polite.
Of course, this runs deeper than just social graces. Society is moving towards a place of acceptance: of women, of people of color, of different cultures, religions, body shapes, lifestyles, sexual orientations… The list goes on and on. If we consider this decline of malicious judgment and scorn to be a good thing, then why does this extremely popular slang contradict that so powerfully? By judging someone by appearances purely out of envy and spite, we are allowing our jealousy, a fleeting, ignorant emotion, to undercut what our culture has fought so hard to build.