Understanding the Idiom: "great unwashed" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Attributed by many to Edmund Burke, the first published use of the phrase was by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in a dedicatory epistle for 1830, Paul Clifford.

The idiom “great unwashed” is a phrase that has been used for centuries to describe a particular group of people. This group is often seen as being uneducated, poor, and lacking in social graces. The term has been used in literature, politics, and everyday conversation to refer to those who are considered to be beneath the upper classes.

While the origins of this idiom are not entirely clear, it is believed that it first came into use during the Victorian era in Britain. At this time, there was a growing divide between the wealthy upper classes and the working-class population. The term “great unwashed” was used by members of the upper class to refer disparagingly to those who were not part of their social circle.

Over time, the meaning of this idiom has evolved somewhat. While it still refers to those who are seen as being socially inferior or uneducated, it can also be used more broadly to describe any group that is perceived as being uncultured or unsophisticated.

Despite its negative connotations, some have embraced this idiom as a way of reclaiming power from those who would seek to marginalize them. In some cases, it has even been adopted ironically by members of certain subcultures or countercultural movements.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “great unwashed”

The phrase “great unwashed” is a commonly used idiom that refers to the lower classes or the masses who are perceived as uneducated, uncultured, and lacking in refinement. This idiom has its roots in the social stratification of British society during the 19th century when there was a clear divide between the upper class and working-class citizens.

During this time, members of the upper class would often use this phrase to describe those who were not part of their social circle. The term “unwashed” was used to imply that these individuals were dirty or unkempt due to their lack of access to proper hygiene facilities. The word “great” was added as an intensifier, emphasizing the large number of people who fell into this category.

The origins of this idiom can be traced back even further to ancient Greece where bathing was seen as a luxury reserved for only the wealthy elite. Those who could not afford regular baths were considered inferior and looked down upon by society.

Over time, this phrase has evolved beyond its original meaning and is now used more broadly to refer to any group that is perceived as being unsophisticated or lacking in culture. Despite its negative connotations, it remains a popular expression in modern English language and continues to be used today.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “great unwashed”

The idiom “great unwashed” is a commonly used phrase in English language that refers to the masses or common people. It is often used in a derogatory manner to describe those who are considered uneducated, uncultured, or unsophisticated.

However, despite its negative connotations, the idiom has been used in various ways throughout history and literature. In some cases, it has been used as a symbol of rebellion against social norms and expectations. In others, it has been employed to criticize the elitist attitudes of certain groups or individuals.

One variation of this idiom is “the hoi polloi”, which comes from Greek and means “the many”. This term is often used sarcastically by those who consider themselves part of an elite group or class.

Another variation is “the rabble”, which carries a more negative connotation than “great unwashed”. This term implies not only lack of education and culture but also disorderly behavior and potential for violence.

Despite its variations, the idiom remains relevant today as a way to describe societal divisions between different classes and groups. Its usage can vary depending on context and tone but always carries with it an implication of superiority or disdain towards those deemed less privileged.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “great unwashed”

Synonyms for “great unwashed” include “hoi polloi,” “rabble,” “plebs,” and “commoners.” These terms all carry a similar connotation of lower social status or lack of education.

Antonyms for “great unwashed” would be words that connote high social status or refinement, such as “aristocracy,” “elite,” or even simply using someone’s name rather than referring to them as part of a group.

Culturally, the use of this idiom can be seen as elitist or classist. It reinforces societal hierarchies and implies that certain groups are inherently superior to others based on their level of education or cultural capital. However, it can also be used ironically or humorously in certain contexts.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “great unwashed”

Exercise 1: Fill in the blanks

Complete the following sentences by filling in the blanks with appropriate words from the list provided below:

– The ____________ refers to people who are considered uneducated or uncultured.

– The ____________ often gather outside political rallies and protests.

– The ____________ are not interested in high culture or intellectual pursuits.

List of words: great unwashed, masses, common people

Exercise 2: Match the meanings

Match each sentence on the left with its corresponding meaning on the right:


1. He was disgusted by the behavior of the great unwashed at the concert.

2. She always felt more comfortable around ordinary people than she did around intellectuals.

3. The politician tried to appeal to the masses by promising lower taxes.


a. People who lack education or refinement

b. Ordinary people as opposed to those who hold positions of power or influence

c. Large groups of people who share a common interest or identity

Exercise 3: Use it in a sentence

Write a sentence using “great unwashed” that demonstrates your understanding of its meaning and usage.

Example: Despite his claims of being a man of the people, he seemed uncomfortable around anyone he deemed part of the great unwashed.

By completing these exercises, you’ll be well on your way to mastering this idiom and incorporating it into your vocabulary!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “great unwashed”

When using idioms, it’s important to understand their meaning and usage in context. The idiom “great unwashed” is often used to refer to the masses or common people. However, there are some common mistakes that should be avoided when using this expression.

Avoid Being Offensive

One mistake is using the idiom in a derogatory manner. Referring to people as the “great unwashed” can be seen as insulting and offensive. It’s important to use language that is respectful and inclusive of all individuals.

Use Context Appropriately

Another mistake is using the idiom out of context. While it may seem like a catchy phrase, it should only be used when referring specifically to a group of people who are not part of high society or considered elite. Using it in other contexts can lead to confusion and misinterpretation.

To avoid these mistakes, take time to understand the meaning and appropriate usage of idioms before incorporating them into your language. Additionally, always consider how your words may be perceived by others and strive for clarity and respect in communication.

Mistakes To Avoid: Correct Usage:
Using the idiom offensively. Using respectful language that includes all individuals.
Using the idiom out of context. Using it specifically when referring to non-elite groups.


  1. 1835, The Complete Works of E. L. Bulwer, Volume 7: Paul Clifford, page 14
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