Lexicon Valley

Don’t Stay Classy

Don’t be this guy.

Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Occasionally a word wends its way into the cockles of whatever the Internet has instead of a heart. Classy, the adjectival equivalent of a graceful, pearl-draped woman in a ball gown, is one example. It joins the ranks of such preprogrammed Web responses as  “SMDH,” “this,” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This (THIS!) is a shame (SMDH). English has so many alternatives to “classy” that are at once more precise and less offensive: elegant, stylish, sophisticated, courteous, brave, distinctive, swanky, ravishing, comely. When L.A. Times fashion critic Booth Moore tweeted last week that, “shrugging off [its] Kim Kardashian and Kanye brand image,” Givenchy had cast “Julia Roberts in a classy spring ad campaign,” she conveyed something uglier than what (we hope) she intended. Her point—change-up!—was obscured beneath waves of implied racial and socioeconomic bias. A subtweeter, perhaps riffing on Sheryl Sandberg’s imprecations against the word bossy, implored, “#banclassy.”

Classy is, of course, classist, wearing its snobbery on its sleeve. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modifier dates to 1891; it’s a spinoff of class, which originally hailed from a Latin term for “fleet” or “division.” As words that carve up humanity go, class used to be neutral and descriptive. When Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, conducted the first census for taxation purposes, he separated the populace into six orders, each a classis. Class entered the English language in the 17th century, blandly denoting “a number of individuals … possessing common attributes” or “a rank or grade of society.”

By the 1800s, though, the noun had crusted over with value judgments. “The classes”—rich, educated—stood apart from “the masses,” or everyone else. (This even applied to the animal kingdom: A 1907 issue of Dogdom Monthly praised an owner’s “very classy taste” after he acquired “a very classy brood bitch,” or thoroughbred lady pup.) At the same time, class as a term of approval was dyeing its socioeconomic roots. In 1874, it appeared in John C. Hotten’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words:  

Class, the highest quality or combination of highest qualities among athletes. “He’s not class enough”, i.e., not good enough. “There’s a deal of class about him”, i.e., a deal of quality.

No explicit societal assignations there (but plenty of implicit). Sports writing, by the way, is still peppered with references to class, if only because aristocratic ideals seem to live on in athletics. (Or they do in theory: The “good sport” conducts himself with nobility, graciousness, and poise, whether or not he plays literal ball.) Jon Lester, now of the Chicago Cubs, is a “classy guy” for how he diffused fan anger over his departure from the Red Sox. Soccer player Andrés Iniesta performs “like a ballet dance; smooth, silky, classy.” Deadspin has a neat tool that breaks down the words used to describe white and black NFL prospects—it reveals that class is used slightly more frequently in reference to black players, but classic is far more likely to attach to a white player. (The widget turned up no results for “classy.”) As Josh Levin has written, we often talk about white athletes in terms of their intangible personal qualities, such as “vision,” “scrappiness,” and “leadership.” Meanwhile, a 2011 study of players in the NBA found that “34 percent of black athletes … grew up in households earning no more than 150 percent of the poverty line,” while “no white NBA player had come from a below-average-income home without two parents.” The vaunted moral and professional values of the upper middle class are not equally accessible to everyone.

As an adjective for superior or upscale, classy grew more common in the 1910s and ’20s, tapered during the ’40s and ’50s (while an increasingly splintered society dreamed that it was more unified than ever), and took off again from the late ’60s into the aughts. Phrases like “class act” and “she’s got class” further conflated worth and privilege. While the Urban Dictionary calls classy a “deeper, more meaningful word for ‘cool,’ ” it’s really just a narrower one: Julia Roberts belongs. Kim Kardashian doesn’t. You could praise Roberts’ aura of tactful restraint—but that’s the easy grace that comes with being a rich white woman who doesn’t need to grab for things. Used earnestly, to compliment generous behavior, classy retains the flatus of a humblebrag. It announces that the speaker knows the difference between having class and not having class (hard to make that kind of distinction unless you’ve got some class yourself).

Classy experienced a Google renaissance in 2005, one year after Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy coined the fatuous sign-off “Stay classy, San Diego.” This was a watershed moment. Burgundy helped transform classy into a piece of dumb-person argot, a “tell” that automatically disqualified the speaker from the chic identity he wanted to project. Quoth Ja’mie, private school girl (and poster child for backfiring snobbishness): “Classy is what the poors say when they think things are fancy. The non-poors say ‘elegant’ or ‘charming.’ ”

So classy started being deployed sardonically, to describe things that are definitely not classy. The conceit became: Here is an animal/vegetable/mineral that someone without taste would find tasteful, aka., here is a tasteless thing. That’s the classy you often see on the Web. (“Always classy,” the political journalist tweeted at another political journalist about an inflammatory piece of political journalism.) Other things that Twitter thinks are classy: A Brooklyn mom leaving her three young kids home alone to get a tattoo, punching women in the face, picking your nose, airlines canceling flights, using “Hit Me Baby One More Time” as music for a feature on CIA torture. Some of these behaviors deserve to be called out, but not as regrettable faux pas or lapses in decorum. Your social bracket has nothing to do with your empathy for torture victims.

So what’s to be done? Here are a few guidelines for reasonable people aspiring to clear, nonmalignant discourse about Audrey Hepburn.

1.     Say what you mean.

Not least among its sins: Classy is vague. Want to capture the coolly assured elegance  of your favorite actress? Try serene or self-possessed. Awed by the ostentatious decor in the W lobby? There’s grandiose. A chivalrous guy holds the door? He’s dashing, or maybe just kind.

2.     Consider classic.

Instead of calling a pretty room or an instance of nice behavior classy, try classic! It still has that refined “ahh” sound, but its jerk implications are buried deeper. Classic shares classy’s Roman etymology, but it took a 17th century detour through the English academy, where it denoted the cornerstone authors of antiquity. Starting around 1620, the “classics” weren’t perceived as shining examples because they were proper to a high social caste, but because they harkened back to an age of intellectual flowering. Even now, classic implies an attitude of respect toward timeless beauty, a purity of intent or allegiance rather than bloodline. “Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me” is a classic,” one critic tweeted recently, meaning: The book adheres to an established form. The book is valuable enough to persist.

3.     But what if you want to use classy in a self-deprecating way, to send up your lack of sophistication (and also to imply that you are too cool to care whether others think you’re sophisticated)?

Oh, got it. So you want to Instagram your Friday night pizza delivery with #classy. Sorry. Nope.

4.     How else are you supposed to use social media to advertise the fact that you have good taste?