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Q: Phrase Origins ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   4 Comments )
Subject: Phrase Origins
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: stevemiedema-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 19 Jun 2002 13:13 PDT
Expires: 19 Jul 2002 13:14 PDT
Question ID: 29346
Who originated the phase, "The Great Unwashed Masses"?
Subject: Re: Phrase Origins
Answered By: juggler-ga on 19 Jun 2002 14:50 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

The origin of the "Great Unwashed Masses," or simply the "Great
Unwashed," has an interesting history.

It's worth noting at the outset that the use of "unwashed" as an
adjective for people (and often as a synonym for "low class") goes
back hundreds of years. For example, Shakespeare's "The Life and Death
of King John" (1595) contains a line about a "lean unwash'd

The term "Great Unwashed" appears to have originated in 19th Century

In 1868, Thomas Wright wrote a book called "The Great Unwashed," about
the working class in Victorian England. No doubt because his book did
a lot to popularize the phrase, Wright is sometimes credited with
coining it, as in this book review by Sasha Abramsky: 

However, author William Makepeace Thackeray had used the phrase "great
unwashed" 18 years earlier in "The History of Pendennis." And a few
commentators cite him as the creator:,WM/life.htm

Earlier still, though, was Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton who used
the term in his 1830 novel "Paul Clifford." Interestingly, according
to a web page at the Department of English at San Jose State
University, Bulwer-Lytton not only coined "great unwashed," but also
came up with "The pen is mightier than the sword" and the classic
opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition 1989, confirms that
Lytton's use as the first, with Thackeray and Wright following. From :

b. absol. Those who are not usually in a clean state; the ?lower
orders?. Freq. with great.
  (a) 1830 LYTTON Paul Clifford I. p. xix, He is certainly a man who
bathes and ?lives cleanly?, (two especial charges preferred against
him by Messrs. the Great Unwashed). 1833 HOOK Parson's Dau. II. 119
The ?fat and greasy?, and the ?great unwashed,? bowed and smiled their
best. 1850 THACKERAY Pendennis xxx, Gentlemen, there can be but little
doubt that your ancestors were the Great Unwashed. 1868 [T. WRIGHT]
The Great Unwashed Pref., Whenever..I speak of working men, or the
working classes, it is in the ?great-unwashed? sense." "

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary essentially agrees, citing the
1830 date associated with Bulwer-Lytton:
" UNWASHED noun 
Date:	1830
: an ignorant or underprivileged group : RABBLE -- usually used with
great <the great unwashed> "

search terms: "great unwashed"
 term, phrase , expression

I hope this helps. Good luck in your research.
stevemiedema-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
An excellent answer.  Thanks very much.

Subject: Re: Phrase Origins
From: arlenegreen-ga on 19 Jun 2002 15:43 PDT
Actually, it goes back further than that. Burke used it first and Sir
Walter Scott ran with it.

Both predate Bulwer-Lytton and interestingly enough Bulwer-Lytton was
thought to be the man to fill Sir Walter's Shoes in literary circles
when he was popular. He got ousted by Dickens from that position.

Fun facts to know and tell from an unused degree in English Lit.
Subject: Re: Phrase Origins
From: stevemiedema-ga on 19 Jun 2002 18:35 PDT
Thanks also for your comments, arlengreen-ga.  Who is Burke?  I've
heard of Scott, of course, but I don't know Burke.
Subject: Re: Phrase Origins
From: arlenegreen-ga on 20 Jun 2002 00:54 PDT
Sorry, Edmund Burke.

He was an interesting and well published statesmen and political
theorist. The "great unwashed" comment was made in regards to the mob
in the French revolution. He tended to side with the likes of Marie

A passionate writer with some very odd ideas (for his day) about what
was best in the realm of government and change. In a world where
change was the order of the day he desired stability over everything.

In spite of a completely different political view, Burke was admired
greatly by Dr. Samuel Johnson. This didn't stop Johnson from arguing
with him but they were literary/political adversaries who enjoyed the
company and and the minds of each other.

At any rate, he is much worth reading up on if you are interested in
such things. He was a polititian with poetry in his soul and well
worth the read on a rainy night.
Subject: Re: Phrase Origins
From: stevemiedema-ga on 20 Jun 2002 03:53 PDT
Thanks very much, arlengreen!

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