What’s a ‘parvenu’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: parvenu.

I learned the word parvenu as a child. My father was extraordinarily pompous and used it to describe people he didn’t like: wealthy people with no class or manners. (We had no money ourselves, of course, but we had plenty of class — or so my father claimed.)

A parvenu is a derogatory word referring to a person of obscure origin who has gained wealth, influence, or celebrity. Some might describe the Kardashian family as parvenues, for example. Thanks to my friend and colleague John Friesen for forwarding this word to me. He found it in the celebrated Margaret MacMillan history book, Paris 1919:  Six Months That Changed the WorldHere is the sentence in which the word appeared:

By contrast, the Tokugawa clan, which had ruled Japan since the 1600’s in the name of an impotent emperor, were pure parvenus.

As you may have guessed from the sound — or appearance — of the word, its origins are French, from parvenu, meaning “something said of an obscure person who has made a great fortune.” This comes from the past participle of parvenu, meaning “to arrive,” which in turn comes from the Latin pervenire, meaning  “to come up, arrive, attain,” from per- meaning “through” + venire meaning “to come.”