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Anne Amnesia, "Unnecessariat", More Crows than Eagles, 5/10/2016:

In 2011, economist Guy Standing coined the term “precariat” to refer to workers whose jobs were insecure, underpaid, and mobile, who had to engage in substantial “work for labor” to remain employed, whose survival could, at any time, be compromised by employers (who, for instance held their visas) and who therefore could do nothing to improve their lot. The term found favor in the Occupy movement, and was colloquially expanded to include not just farmworkers, contract workers, “gig” workers, but also unpaid interns, adjunct faculty, etc. Looking back from 2016, one pertinent characteristic seems obvious: no matter how tenuous, the precariat had jobs. The new dying Americans, the ones killing themselves on purpose or with drugs, don’t. Don’t, won’t, and know it.

Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!

The article starts by comparing the rise in suicide and overdose deaths to the history of AIDS deaths in the 1980s, and her punchline is this:

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: county by county, where life expectancy is dropping survivors are voting for Trump.

Since this is Language Log and not Political Analysis Log, I'll let you digest the article on your own, and turn my attention to the word formation principles behind unnecessariat.

The OED glosses proletariat as "Wage earners collectively, esp. those who have no capital and who depend for subsistence on their daily labour; the working classes", and gives its etymology as

< French prolétariat condition of being proletarian, proletarian class (1832) < classical Latin prōlētārius proletary n. + French -at -ate suffix1. With sense 1a compare German Proletariat (1844 in Marx, or earlier), Russian proletariat (1864 or earlier).

The -at affix was the earlier form of -ate, as the OED explains:

In popular words which lived on into Old French, Latin -ātus, -ātum, became (through -ato, -ado, -ad, -ed, -et) -é, as cūrātus, senātus, avocātus, stātus, peccātum, Old French curé, sené, avoué, esté, péché; learned words, adapted from Latin, took -at, as in estat, prelat, primat, magistrat. After 13th c. many of the popular words were refashioned with -at, as sené, senat, avoué, avocat; and all new words have been thus formed, e.g. assassinat, attentat, épiscopat, palatinat, professorat, syndicat. In English these were originally adopted in their French form, estat, prelat, etc.; after 1400, -e was added to mark the long vowel, estate, prelate, etc., and all later words from French took -ate at once. After these, English words are formed directly on Latin, as curātus ‘curate,’ or on Latin analogies, as alderman-ate, cf. triumvir-ate.

The earliest OED citation for proletariat explicitly notes the German and French origin:

1847   Daguerreotype 16 Oct. 264   The proletariat, which has not morally and physically any thing to lose, has allied itself to this revolutionary tendency… [Note] This word, which has lately become familiar to all readers of German and French literature, signifies the lowest and poorest classes, those in fact who are totally destitute of property.

And presumably it was the perceived foreignness of the word that led to retention of the French form in -at, rather than adaptation to the normal English -ate. Whatever the reason, the final "-at" in proletariat is nearly unique in the contemporary English vocabulary, and so leads naturally to portmanteau forms like precariat (precarious X proletariat) and unnecessariat (unnecessary X proletariat), or perhaps to the notion of a suffix -at used to form terms for  social classes defined by the their role in the economy.

The entry for prōlētārĭus from Lewis and Short:

According to a division of the people by Servius Tullius, a citizen of the lowest class, who served the State not with his property, but only with his children (proles), a proletary: “qui aut non plus mille quingentum aeris aut omnino nihil in suum censum praeter caput attulissent, proletarios nominavit, ut ex iis quasi proles [id est quasi progenies] civitatis exspectari videretur,” Cic. Rep. 2, 22, 40;

We should note, by the way, that the idea of "condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness" is not entirely new, nor is the idea that such people might be politically disruptive.



  1. Adam Roberts said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    It interests me that the original meaning of the Latin, proles meaning 'offspring, children', has been almost entirely submerged by the modern English sense of 'proles' as the working class as a class. I can think of 'prolific' as a modern English word that retains the sense of the original Latin, but that's the only one I can think of.

  2. leoboiko said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 6:01 am

    In Portuguese prole is still alive in the meaning of "offspring; spawn". I think it sounds offensive when used about human children (in my Brazilian dialect at least). Fortunately I don't think the connection between prole and proletário draws much attention to itself unless pointed out.

  3. mollymooly said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 6:28 am

    the final "-at" in proletariat is nearly unique in the contemporary English vocabulary

    The other two are "commissariat" and "secretariat"; I guess the neologism "commentariat" is modelled on commissariat rather than proletariat.

    [(myl) There's also "professoriat" and a few others… It's relevant that there's an 'r' in all of the cited words — precariat, unnecessariat, commissariat, secretariat, commentariat, professoriat — echoing the 'r' in proletariat. Since the 'r' in every case comes from the base word, this supports the view that these are all portmanteau words rather than uses of a new affix.]

  4. Keith said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 6:45 am

    One thing I feel I have to point out, is that Guy Standing did not "coin the term"; Standing used it in his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, but it was in use from 2006, at the latest, and probably from well before then.

    Octobre – 2006 (n°46)
    Le précariat, entre contrainte et liberté

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 9:08 am

    "Professoriat" is (per the google n-gram viewer) a decided minority variant compared to the dominant "professoriate" — so much so that while I presumably must have seen the e-less version I didn't consciously think of it as a variation and it thus looked like a jocular coinage when I saw it in this post. "Secretariate" as a variant of "secretariat" exists but seems extremely rare or archaic and used in some hits in what seems like a loanword capacity from some foreign language where the spelling with -e might be more standard — which is ironic since the -e less words in English have a definite foreign-jargon feel, whether that foreignness be that of Marxism or that of international bureaucracy historically dominated by Francophones.

  6. Francisco said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    There is lariat too, with a deliciously lowbrow etymology.

  7. flow said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    "Since this is Language Log and not Political Analysis Log"—is it true that "in 2011, economist Guy Standing coined the term 'precariat'”? It'd seem to me that over here in Europe people have been using the term for decades. Can the claim of authorship be made for US-only usage? Is the word 'coined' maybe used in the sense of '(famously) popularized' instead of 'created' or 'was the first to use'?

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    Any idea of how the i slipped into professoriat(e)? All the others have –ri– in the Latin etymon.

    It reminds me of normalcy, where — abnormally — there is no Latin -tia in the background.

    Is it simply a matter of ignoring centuries of derivational practice in English?

    Then there is diglossia. Normally, English words derived from French -ie based on Greek -ia end in -y, except in medical terminology. And this was coined by a linguist!

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    A while ago a British captain of industry caused some trouble by talking about 'the middle-class salariat'. (Again there is an 'r' in the root.)

  10. Terry Hunt said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    To add to the list – on some blogs (Making Light springs to mind), both the bloggers and some of the commenters occasionally refer to the commenters in the round as "the Commentariat." This is in a Science Fiction Fandom context, where wordplay and neology are practically obligatory: I don't know if it's used outside that (our) subculture.

  11. Jonathan said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    The progressive rock band Triumvirat lacked the final "e," and used rat images on their album covers. Is the lack of the "e" a result of their German origins, or something else?

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

    @ Terry Hunt: The most frequent usage I've seen of commentariat is in relation to opinion journalists and commentators, aka the puditocracy.

  13. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    @Adam Roberts: The shortening to "proles" I always took as a specific reference to 1984.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    There is lariat too, with a deliciously lowbrow etymology.

    What is that etymology? etymonline shows:

    rope or cord used for tying or catching horses, 1832, American English, from Spanish la reata "the rope," from reatar "to tie against," from re- "back" (see re-) + atar "to tie," from Latin aptare "to join," from aptus "fitted".

    Nothing seems unusual about that to me — we have a word for ropes that comes from the Spanish word for "rope", which itself derives from words for tying and before that joining. Lowbrow?

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

    Then there is diglossia. Normally, English words derived from French -ie based on Greek -ia end in -y, except in medical terminology.

    So diglossia would be the medical condition of having two tongues?

  16. D.O. said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

    A bit unusual for this series of -riat words is kashmiriat (a variant spelling of kashmiriyat).

  17. maidhc said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

    Another foreign suffix that has been adopted is -nik from Russian Sputnik. It hasn't generated a large number of words, but 'beatnik' (supposedly coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle) and 'refusenik'.

    My own father created another such word when he blanked out on the term for the things you put in your shoes (usually called 'shoe trees') and replaced it with 'pushniks'.

  18. Bloix said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    -nik as a suffix for a person is a Yiddish borrowing from Russian that entered mainstream English a decade before Sputnik via Guys and Dolls (premiered 1950), when Nathan sings to Adelaide:
    "Alright already, I'm just a nogoodnik, alright already, it's true, so nu?
    Sue me, sue, what can you do me? I – Love – You!"
    "Nogoodnik" is a wonderful word, being an Englishing of the Yiddish-from-Russian negodnik meaning a worthless person. Another Yiddish word that made it into English is "nudnik," meaning a annoying person.
    Herb Caen was a non-observant Jew who didn't deny his origins but didn't emphasize them either. Although he might have been influenced by Sputnik, it's likely that he was drawing on the Yiddish expression when he coined beatnik.

  19. Ray said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 8:21 pm

    interesting how the -iat ending is similar to the way the -ati ending works, in that, with the same 3 letters, they both suggest different classes (a serving/working class and an expertise/professional class)


    proletariat, lumpenproletariat, precariat, unnecessariat, commissariat, professoriat, salariat, secretariat


    literati, glitterati, culturati, illuminati, digerati, castrati

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 11:45 am

    @Andrew (not the same one): (re diglossia) Exactly! Older dictionaries have, in fact, "the condition of the tongue being bifid" as the definition. Linguists dealing with Modern Greek used "diglossy" before Ferguson's paper took linguistics by storm.

  21. parse said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    after 1400, -e was added to mark the long vowel, estate, prelate, etc., and all later words from French took -ate at once.

    As I pronounce it, and as I have heard it pronounced, proletariat doesn't have a long vowel, and neither do "commissariat" and "secretariat." The OED suggests that "estate" and "prelate" were originally adopted without the terminal -e. Were they originally pronounced with the long vowel, or did that pronunciation develop after they were adopted into English, leading to the addition of the final -e to make spelling reflect a changed pronunciation?

  22. Michael said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    Is there nobody going to comment on TOTES AMAZEBALLS!? Looks suspiciously matze balls to me…

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