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Nouveau riche (French for "new rich"), or new money, refers to a person who has acquired considerable wealth within his or her generation.[1] This term is generally to emphasize that the individual was previously part of a lower socioeconomic rank, and that such wealth has provided the means for the acquisition of goods or luxuries that were previously unobtainable. The term can also be used in a derogatory fashion, for the purposes of social class distinction, to describe persons with newfound wealth as lacking the experience or finesse to use wealth in the same manner as old money—persons from families who have been wealthy for multiple generations.


Historical contexts

The idea of nouveau riche and the struggle within the ranks of the affluent is not modern. According to David Gill, animosity between old inherited wealth and the appropriators of new wealth is often traced as far back as ancient Greece.[2] Theognis, a sixth century B.C. aristocratic poet, wrote how “In former days, there was a tribe who knew no laws nor manners…These men are nobles, now, the gentlemen of old are now the trash.”[3] This Greek poet wrote these words during a time in Greece, when money and economic growth in relation to trade gave rise to high class proprietors.

Social status

Social status is often defined in relation to wealth and the power that is acquired through wealth. It can be said that throughout time upper ruling classes legitimize “their rule with claims of status and honor and moral superiority.”[4] Ruling classes have often made claims to the superiority of inherited wealth through “blood…and the concept of proper breeding.” The Nouveau riche is often juxtaposed against Old Money, or those with trans-generational wealth, in order to highlight the cultural, value system and societal differences between the two groups. Old Family ties, as traditional claims of status, are not found in the nouveaux riches, which challenges and ultimately redefines social traditions and values such as the institution of debutantes and their debut to society. As seen through the rise in the number of debutantes, the social value of the debut has since shifted from the “family’s elite social standing and long family traditions” to “a symbolic value as an element of upper-class life style.”[5] This transition allows for high social standing to be established by the nouveau riche through the institution of the debut.[6] Social integration of these elite sects is extremely slow and sluggish, which prolongs and strengthens stereotypes. This rate of integration makes it more likely that the nouveaux riches will “retain identification with the traditional…group of origin; this is the basis for division between the groups. Furthermore, the isolation that minority nouveaux riches experience within their own class leads them “to prioritize issues of radical justice, civil liberties, and religious tolerance over pure economic self-interest”[7]

Inter-class stereotypes

Often referred to as parvenu, members of the nouveau riche, are often discriminated against by the “Old Money” sects of society since they “lack the proper pedigree.”[8] These new comers to economic freedom are subject to even greater scrutiny from their lack of historical prestige as seen through Dye’s comments which reference new rich as “uncouth” and “uncultured.” The behavior of the nouveau riche is often satirized by American society by “implying that stereotyped, rather than real, behavior patterns are copied.”[9] Many people have made claims to the inferiority of those of new money as compared to those with old money. Many have made claims that nouveaux riches “lack political and cultural sophistication” and others make comparisons saying that the old rich are “more sophisticated than the less cosmopolitan nouveau riche.”[10][11] These assumptions further perpetuate the differences between the two and lead to even further stereotypes and have lasted for well over a century. In the 1920’s a Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte protested that “the nouveau riche…is making places like Palm Beach no more exclusive than Coney Island. Newport, the last stronghold of the elite, has the moneyed intruder at the gates…Undesirables are penetrating everywhere.”[12]

Nouveau riche in the 21st century

Nouveau riche was given a new definition and grandeur in the 20th century. This cultural shift in attitude towards the nouveaux riches began through the example of President Ronald Reagan, as stated by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. in his 1988 work “Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class.” Aldrich states that Reagan, as a self-made man, surrounded himself with other self-made men, who had transcended society’s class ladder. Many believed that Reagan was the “embodiment” of the new money movement as seen through his election on the “right-wing politics characteristic of the Sunbelt nouveau riches.”[13] Reagan encouraged the embracing of the “Market Man” and further encouraged greater efficiency in corporate America through the use of the hostile takeover.[14]

In the dawn of the rise of Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship has increasingly become appreciated for its underlying ethic of hard work and goal-oriented behavior. The line that once separated society into new money and old money have begun to blur since the birth of the “overnight multi-millionaire”. Internet moguls such as David Filo and Jerry Yang, creators of Yahoo!, are helping to redefine terms such as nouveau riche. Reagan-like ideals have provided a springboard to more contemporary industry, such as that found in the electronics business, in which “...a bunch of wide-eyed kids...” who “...weren’t just out to make money...they were idealistic and were going to change the world.” Joseph Nocera of the New York Times Magazine purported that a societal change occurred when “New Money became respectable the moment it was connected to a California computer start-up instead of to a Texas oil well.” [15]


  1. ^ "Nouveau Riche". Merriam Webster.  
  2. ^ Gill, David H. 1994 "Anti-popular rhetoric in ancient Greece." In Wealth in Western Thought, ed. Paul G. Schervish, 13-42. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  3. ^ Theognis 1973 "Elegies." Hesiod and Theognis. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  4. ^ Burris, Val 2000 "The Myth of Old Money Liberalism: The Politics of the "Forbes" 400 Richest Americans." Social Problems, Vol. 47, No. 3, 360-378. CA: University of California Press
  5. ^ Beth Day 1966 “After This Party She’ll Be Invited Everywhere,” Saturday Evening Post, 239:35.
  6. ^ Dean D. Knudsen 1968 "Socialization to Elitism: A Study of Debutantes." The Sociological Quarterly 9 (3) , 300–308.
  7. ^ Burris, Val 2000 "The Myth of Old Money Liberalism: The Politics of the "Forbes" 400 Richest Americans." Social Problems, Vol. 47, No. 3, 360-378. CA: University of California Press
  8. ^ Burris, Val 2000 "The Myth of Old Money Liberalism: The Politics of the "Forbes" 400 Richest Americans." Social Problems, Vol. 47, No. 3, 360-378. CA: University of California Press
  9. ^ Linn, Erwin L. "Reference Group: A Case Study in Conceptual Diffusion" The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4. (Autumn, 1966), pp. 489-499.
  10. ^ Lipset, Seymour M. 1963 "Three decades of the Radical Right." In The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell, 373-446. New York: Anchor Books.
  11. ^ Szymanski, Albert 1978 "The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class." Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.
  12. ^ Amory, Cleveland 1960 "Who Killed Society?" New York, Harper.
  13. ^ Sale, Kirkpatrick 1975 "Power Shift." New York: Vintage Books.
  14. ^ Aldrich, Nelson W. Jr. "Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class" New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
  15. ^ Nocera, Joseph "The arriviste has arrived" New York Times Magazine; Nov 15, 1998; New York Times pg. 68

See also



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