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Blue collar, white collar

The term blue-collar describes working-class people, especially those who work in manufacturing, construction, and other fields involving manual labor and hourly wages. It also describes things having to do with working-class people, such as the areas where they live and their shared concerns, and it can describe a style of working. For instance, a football coach who is hands-on in practice and speaks in a no-nonsense way might be described as having a blue-collar style.

White-collar describes people who don’t perform manual labor, especially office workers, management, and administrative staff. It is also extended to describe things having to do with white-collar people (especially in the phrase white-collar crime), but it is not as common as blue-collar in this sort of use.

Both terms came about in the early to middle 20th century in the United States. White-collar precedes blue-collar by a few years (or at least was widely used earlier),1 so the latter may have been suggested by the former. Their derivations are obvious. People who work in manufaturing and other manual-labor jobs tend to wear darker, often blue, clothing to conceal dirt and grease, whereas people who work in offices tend to wear white or light-colored clothing because there is little risk of getting visibly dirty.

Examples


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Here are a few examples drawn from sources spanning the early 20th century to the present:

The second largest group of placements were service workers, whereas in the active file white-collar workers were second in importance. [Doors to Jobs, Emily Harriett Huntington (1942)]

The salaries of postmen, clerks and “blue collar” workers should be adjusted according to the pay standards in the region where they work. [Life (1949)]

There are too many people, trained in too many white and blue collar skills, to support themselves in the future by farming individually our remaining productive land. [Resources and the American Dream, Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. (1953)]

The income gains of the blue-collar workers under the powerful post-World War II unions, at the expense of the largely unorganized white-collar workers, raise questions about the subsequent interplay of income, power, status, and style of life at these class levels. [Assimilation in American Life, Milton Myron Gordon (1964)]

A Democratic spokesman said Saturday President Nixon has overlooked rent gougers, price fixers, political saboteurs and other white-collar criminals while emphasizing tough penalties for other crimes. [Associated Press via Modesto Bee (1972)]

Of the workers laid off at DoD between 1990 and 1992, about 60 percent were blue-collar workers even though they accounted for slightly less than 30 percent of DoD’s civilian work force. [Reducing the Size of the Federal Civilian Work Force, Amy Belasco (1994)]

Of course most white-collar crime is not as grand as that which occurred at Enron or WorldCom. [Sociology, Anthony Giddens and Simon Griffiths (2006)]

This is vintage Biden – the down-to-earth blue-collar Joe who puts people at ease in even the most formal of settings. [Irish Times]

Reference

1. Ngram graphing the use of both words, 1900-2000 

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Comments

  1. Does those have any positive or negative connotation hidden? For example id someone is called a blue-collar may this mean anything more that is suggested by the context?

    • Grammarist says:

      We can only speak from a narrow American perspective, but here in the U.S. we tend to exalt the working classes and hard work in general, and “blue collar” tends to connote decent, hardworking people with conventional, middle-American values. Sure, they might be viewed as poorly educated and culturally unsophisticated, yet we tend to romanticize them anyway. So “blue-collar” is probably more positive than negative, but of course it’s always a good idea to be careful of what terms we use to describe other people.

      Funnily enough, many of the people (I’m thinking of politicians) who romanticize blue-collar people are also derisive toward unions, which have historically been an important part of the blue-collar life.

      The connotations of “white collar” are a little more varied. White-collar people are working people, which means they get more respect than other groups, but the work they do is not romanticized. Office work is often portrayed in fiction as meaningless, dehumanizing drudgery, whereas blue-collar work is somehow more real and human. And of course, whereas blue-collar people are thought of as tough, white-collar people are thought of as sheltered and effete.

      All of this is subjective and very general, though, and no doubt other commenters would have different things to say about the connotations of the terms.

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