There has been a lot of fuss lately over what the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell did or didn't say to a policeman at Downing Street. Leaving aside that I have some sympathy with Mitchell, as he wasn't talking to a policeman as defender of liberty, but rather a policeman as jobsworth refusing to do his job and open a gate, I find the reaction to one word fascinating.
Mitchell is accused by the policeman (though he denies it) of calling him a pleb. This is being treated by parts of the media as if he had used the N word - but I would say there is a fundamental difference. I absolutely understand why those who take offence from the use of the N word get upset, because it links them to an unpleasant historical context. This isn't the case for pleb.
'Pleb' is short for 'plebeian' from the Roman distinction between a plebeius - one of the common people - and a patricius, a patrician, a member of the nobility or (post classically) a high ranking official. Practically everyone was a pleb. So basically what Mitchell (if he said it) was accusing the policeman of being was one of what our US cousins tend to call 'We the people'. Not a waste of space, toffy-nosed idiot, but the salt of the earth. And this is offensive because?...
Of course, you might argue that it's not offensive in itself, but rather in the way it is typically used by a certain class of people. They (we could class them as Bullingdon Club types) consider themselves a cut above the rest, and consider the plebs to be oiks, the ones who didn't go to Eton or have some minor title in the family. But to take offence is to suggest that these idiots are right. And they aren't. Given the choice between Bullingdon Club types ('hearties' we used to call them at university, and it wasn't intended as a compliment either) and being a pleb, I know which I'd choose. My grandparents were mill workers from Rochdale. What else could I be? Plebeian and proud of it.
Up the plebs!