The rich: Exactly what does the terminology mean?

By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News Magazine


"Bankers", "the rich" and "the 1%" have become part of the lexicon of a maelstrom of protest. But what do the terms really mean?

A wave of protests across the world and of more measured anger expressed in newspaper letters pages and on social networking sites have thrown up a new lexicon of resentment of the wealthy and the powerful.

But how did all these newly popular terms come to be used as they are?

"The rich"

Everyone knows someone they consider to be rich. But many would struggle with a precise definition, and plenty considered rich by others would shy away from using the term.

In his book Richistan, Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank concluded that "people's definition of rich is subjective and is usually twice their current net worth". Some people would define rich as having more money than you "need" to live, but definition of "needs" vary dramatically.

A survey of professional households by insurance firm Hiscox suggested an annual income of £93,000 in the UK was hard to manage on. Those polled complained of feeling broke and said they would need to earn more than £150,000 before they felt wealthy.

image captionAbramovich finds it difficult to determine who is wealthy

For some, merely owning a business means you are wealthy, regardless of whether it's a corner shop or a multinational company. During the summer riots in England, two teenage looters explained that they were showing the police and "the rich" they could do what they wanted. But their definition of rich seemed to encompass anyone who owned a shop. "It's the rich people, the people who have businesses," said one.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was pressed during a court appearance recently on whether one of his partners was, in his opinion, rich.

Lurking under the surface is the knowledge that "the rich" is a hostile term in this era. During the 2008 US presidential election, Republican John McCain declared he was not a rich man, despite owning several homes.

But is there any neutral set of parameters for richness?

One way of dividing the rich from the middle class is through the top tax rate, which kicks in at £150,000 a year in the UK and $379,151 in the US.

Millionaires used to be the most obvious qualifiers for the "rich" label, but they aren't very rare these days, and the number of billionaires is rising.

The Forbes list of the world's richest people lists more than 1,200 billionaires across the globe, with Russia and China boasting more than 100 billionaires each. The US has more than 400 billionaires and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is top of the pile with a net worth of $59bn.

There are 73 billionaires in the UK - up from 53 the previous year, according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List.

Prof John Van Reenen, director of the Centre for Economic Performance, says you need to be making more than £140,000 a year to be among the top 1% of UK earners. (See the entry below on the 1%.)

image captionProtesters suggest the gap between have-yachts and have-nots is widening

"If you look at the top 1% of the population over the last 100 years, a century ago a big chunk of the money would have not have come from earnings - it would have come from investment returns and bequests. Today the vast majority comes from earnings."

The definition of rich has certainly changed over time.

"Powerful, mighty; noble, great." That's the first reference to rich in the Oxford English Dictionary but this definition, from Anglo Saxon times, is now obsolete.

But it also meant "having much money or abundant assets; wealthy, moneyed, affluent" and this meaning has stayed the course.

The further back you go, the rich were richer in comparative terms, says Prof Bill Rubinstein, an expert on the history of the wealthy. But there are more wealthy people now because of the rise in house prices in the UK.

In 1880 a rich person would have had £100,000 in assets or an income of £10,000 a year, he says. About a hundred people a year died leaving £100,000 and by 1910 this was 250 - "a microscopic fraction of the number of deaths at the time".

Prof Rubinstein thinks annual earnings of £250,000 is the cut-off point today and says the rich-poor divide has always been tolerable only as long as the poor have opportunities.

"The 1%"

"We are the 99%".

That's the rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement which pitched its tents in Manhattan's financial district on 17 September in a move that spread to other US cities and around the world.

While it is difficult to pin down the protesters' exact goals, their terminology has been widely used in the media.

image captionThe concepts of the 1% and the 99% have spread around the world

The protesters claim to stand for the 99% of Americans who were not bailed out by the government.

In 2009, it took "just" $343,927 a year to join the elite group at the top of the ladder of US taxpayers. Just under 1.4 million households qualified for entry, they earned nearly 17% of the nation's income and paid roughly 37% of its income tax.

Richard Wolff, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, used figures from a new Congressional Budget Office report to back up the basic claim of Occupy Wall Street.

"Simply put, the CBO report shows that over the last quarter century (1979 to 2007, to be exact), the top 1% of income earners enjoyed far, far bigger real income gains than the other 99%," he wrote.

The picture is even more dramatic if you consider wealth - the total value of a household or individual's assets such as their home and investments.

According to data compiled by economist Edward Wolff in 2007, 99% hold about two-thirds of American wealth, meaning the top 1% has nearly a third.

However, the Guardian has crunched the numbers and says the divide in the US is more like the 0.01% v the 99.99%.

"Occupy" is the top word of 2011, according to the Global Language Monitor's annual global survey of the English language.

And in 10th place is "(The Other) 99", referring to the majority of those living in Western democracies who are left out of the dramatic rise in earnings associated with the top 1%.

But the Occupy protesters were not the first to use "the 1%". It has been cropping up in surveys, forecasts and reports for years.

In the UK, the richest 1% take about 14% of all income - the highest since World War II but lower than the interwar period, according to the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance.

Its study looks at who they are and how their pay has changed over the past decade. A Manchester United footballer was paid an average of £941,000 last year compared to £357,000 in 2001, a top barrister's pay jumped from £286,700 to £535,417, and a partner in an accountancy firm went from £472,000 to £759,000.

The chief executive of a FTSE350 company - the index of the 350 biggest companies in the UK - was paid an average of £1.5m last year, compared with £969,000 in 2001.

Ruth Lea, economic adviser to the Arbuthnot Banking Group, says the phrase "the top 1%" should always take wealth into account.

"When it gets into the press, it's about earnings rather than wealth. It is not what I believe to be the concept of rich."

Many people would assume the top 1% are all bankers but it also includes landowners and long-standing family businesses, she says.

"In a society like ours, which is still class-ridden, there's an amazing acceptance of extremely wealthy people who have inherited the wealth. They don't come in for the criticism that the likes of Bob Diamond (chief executive of Barclays Bank) comes in for.

"It's hard for people to grab hold of the idea that his contribution to the business is that many times bigger than someone else's."


"Bankers" has become a catch-all "boo-word" that can be seen on thousands of placards and letters pages.

Many people imagine bankers to be pinstriped, Porsche-driving men who have big houses and high-maintenance trophy wives.

image captionBankers have become the enemy

Just this week, there was a story about a banker in London who spent £37,000 on dancers, Cristal champagne and food at Spearmint Rhino, a lap dancing club in London. The financier was described as a "youngish, slim Englishman" who was "celebrating a massive windfall", on his own.

According to analysis run by Collins Dictionaries, the verbs most commonly used in English with "banker" from 2009-11 are "disgrace" and "shame", says editor Ian Brookes.

The most common adjective used with banker is "greedy", which is almost twice as common as the next adjective "responsible", though this is usually used in phrases like "bankers who are responsible for the mess", notes Brookes.

"Bash", as in "banker bashing", also stands out as a new connection.

Earlier this year Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan, hit out against "banker bashing", saying it was a "huge misconception" that all banks ran into trouble during the financial crisis.

Bankers have all been tarred with the same brush, says London-based head-hunter John Purcell.

Protesters are singling out the top 1% of the banking community who tend to earn the telephone number salaries and lumping them together with everyone who works in the financial sector, suggests Purcell.

image captionAll City workers are lumped together as "bankers"

"The protesters, whether they appreciate it or not, are really only talking about a tiny fraction of that group. They are not looking at the vast majority of people who earn reasonable reward."

Other categories of high finance worker, like hedge fund managers, have been criticised, but "hedgies" has not proliferated across placards. Of course, it was banks that were the main targets of the bailouts, but insurance company AIG was bailed out too.

"Squeezed middle"

This was a term that was ridiculed when Labour Party leader Ed Miliband first used it. Now it has earned a certain degree of status as global word, or rather two words, of the year.

Chosen by Oxford University Press lexicographers in the UK and the US, it refers to hard-working families on an average income, who are seeing their living standards eroded by rising prices, pay freezes, cuts to their pensions and increases in VAT. Like Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society the term is widely used if not always understood.

Miliband came in for a bit of stick when he struggled to define the term during an interview on Radio 4's Today programme earlier this year but it now appears to have taken root.

Susie Dent, spokeswoman for Oxford Dictionaries and language expert on Channel 4's Countdown, says the power of the label lies in its vagueness.

It's something that a large proportion of the electorate feel they belong to, she says.

"It has actually been around for some time. Bill Clinton quite liked the idea of the squeezed middle. He talked about hard-pressed working families squeezed in the middle which sounds very familiar."

Dent believes squeezed middle is here to stay but it needs to show more longevity before making it into an Oxford dictionary.

The words squeeze and middle are now seven times more likely to occur together than any two random words, says Brookes.

He found the phrase "this squeezed middle white class" in the 1928 book Dark Princess: A Romance by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. There is a reference to the "squeezed middle class" in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2003 and the "squeezed middle" first appeared in 2010.

"Fat cat"

Fat cats are great fodder for newspaper cartoonists. They are are usually smoking big fat cigars and their greedy grin screams "we got the cream". A giant Fat Cat flap is also occasionally drawn.

The word was first used in the 1920s in the US to describe rich political donors, but now it tends to be shorthand for those who are seen to have it easy at the expense of others.

In 2009, US President Barack Obama criticised "fat cat" bankers who pay themselves large bonuses.

There has been a gradual increase in the use of this term since the 1960s, says Brookes. From 2009-11, "fat" is the most commonly used adjective in front of "cat" - "pet" is second, followed by "stray", "pussy" and "scaredy".

The term was once aimed near-exclusively at people in the private sector, but now it's frequently used to describe those in the public sector.

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