Ever bumped into a particularly unimpressive child of privilege with a hoity-toity surname and wondered to yourself, "I wonder how many generations of this dork's family have been living off some distant ancestor's achievements?" Well, if you're English, try 20!
LiveScience reports on a study recently published in Human Nature by economists Gregory Clark, of the University of California, Davis, and Neil Cummins, of the London School of Economics. In order to examine social mobility over the centuries, they tracked surnames through history:
Clark and his colleague... used multiple databases, including parish records and legal documents, to ferret out rare English surnames. They then compared the proportion of these rare names in the general population to the proportion of rare names of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities dating back to 1170.
Popping up among the elites: Agassizs, Brickdales and Cheslyns. Not part of the upper crust: Allberts, Arfmans and Clemishaws. (So sorry, chaps.) The pair found that once you're in, you're in like Flynn: "An elite family in 1800 was likely still elite in 1600 and in 2000, too. A surname's initial status can easily persist for 20 to 30 generations, or 600 to 900 years."
Nor have things changed in modern times, the authors say. Quartz plucks these sobering bits from the study: "This correlation is unchanged over centuries. Social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times," and "Even more remarkable is the lack of a sign of any decline in status persistence across major institutional changes, such as the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the spread of universal schooling in the late nineteenth century, or the rise of the social democratic state in the twentieth century."
So the next time you bump into some smooth Oxbridge type sporting a fancy suit and an attitude, pat him on the back and congratulate him on his great accomplishment, being born the great great (...) great grandson of some dude who rode with William the Conqueror.
Image via Getty.