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April 30, 2006
Ideas & Trends

An Adjective for Cakes, but Not for Bill Gates

By GEOFFREY NUNBERG

BY any objective standard, there are more rich Americans than ever before. More than eight million of us are worth more than $1 million, exclusive of our homes, according to one recent estimate. And when it comes to what used to be called serious money, the number of households with assets over $10 million has quintupled since 1980.

Wealth has grown so common that according to a 2003 Gallup poll, half of those under 30 think they'll be rich someday.

But to listen to how people describe their current financial status, the ranks of the rich haven't expanded at all. Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who describe themselves as rich has stayed at 1 percent to 2 percent.

In part, that's because we reckon how rich we are, as Samuel Johnson said, "not by the calls of nature, but by the plenty of others." After all, if you're still flying commercial and your business school classmates have their own Gulfstreams, it's easy to forget that there was a time when your wildest dreams of riches only went as far as a seat in first class.

But even those at the very top of the ladder seem to be sheepish about describing themselves with the R-word.

Asked in 2003 if he felt rich, Bill Gates would say only, "At this point I'm clearly not by some definition middle class."

Unlike "prosperous" or "affluent," "rich" implies a society divided into separate estates, a legacy of the word's origin in the Indo-European name for a tribal king.

People may disagree on exactly how much money it takes to be rich, but that only confirms that it's an absolute threshold, and that those who have crossed it are delivered from the cares that afflict the rest of us. (Nobody who wins the lottery cries "I'm affluent!")

Those vaguely undemocratic implications are apt to evoke charges of class warfare when politicians refer to "the rich."

In his 1994 book, "The Agenda," Bob Woodward reported that Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, himself a wealthy man, urged President Bill Clinton to speak only of "the well-to-do" a phrase that suggests a respectably prosperous patent lawyer, not Paris Hilton.

These days, in fact, it's usually only entertainers and celebrities who unapologetically revel in being rich, mindful of their obligation to live out the fantasies of the rest of us.

"My God is a God who wants me to have things," Mary J. Blige recently told Blender magazine. "He wants me to bling."

Ms. Blige would have found many kindred spirits a century ago, when the marks of worldly success were "leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods," as Thorstein Veblen observed in "The Theory of the Leisure Class."

But the phrase "the idle rich" has vanished since then. Today's leaner billionaires claim to desire money not as a means of avoiding work but as proof of how good they are at it. The money, they avow, is merely a way of keeping score.

Today's rich may spend as profusely as the robber barons of the last Gilded Age, but most try to be more circumspect about it, and insist they still feel middle class like everyone else. Indeed, it was the revelations of conspicuous blinging, as much as his legal derelictions, that brought a shower of scorn on the head of the former Tyco chief executive, L. Dennis Kozlowski.

Whether it's applied to people or pastries, "rich" still suggests surfeit and unwholesome excess. Filthy rich, we say, is a far cry from dirt poor.

Hence a paradox. "I want to be rich" the fantasy of possessing more wealth than anyone could possibly ever need is the driving force of capitalism.

But the very extravagance that "rich" implies ensures that those who achieve that dream will feel reluctant to acknowledge it.

Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. His book, "Talking Right" will be published in July by PublicAffairs.