Aristocracy, nobility, gentry, county, elite and society all denote a body of persons who constitute a socially superior caste.
Aristocracy often refers to an ideally superior caste and therefore does not invariably apply to a fixed or definite group of persons.
- there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents
Usually the term connotes superiority in birth, breeding, and social station and is applicable to all those persons generally recognized as first in family and in personal importance.
- he comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy
However, in countries where there is a privileged and titled class, the nobility, aristocracy is often used to designate the same group with this difference in implication: that nobility stresses rank inferior to that of royalty but superior to that of all other classes, and aristocracy stresses the possession of power over the people through ownership of land and through long-established and generally acknowledged superiority.
- the word cousin in the mouth or from the pen of a royalty signified a recognition of rank superior to nobility
- the distinguishing characteristic of an aristocracy is the enjoyment of privileges which are not communicable to other citizens simply by anything they can themselves do to obtain them
However, nobility in British use does not include titled commoners (as baronets and knights). These latter are thought of as members of the aristocracy.
Gentry and county are distinctively British terms applied to a class, essentially a leisured class, who by birth and breeding can be described as gentlemen (in the technical sense) and ladies but who are without hereditary title and are classed as commoners.
In British use gentry refers to a class in rank just below the nobility but often having in its membership persons of equally high birth or breeding.
County, however, carries a suggestion of an association of the family with the county or section and usually of ownership of an estate in the country.
- the gentry and the nobility were on friendliest terms
- the newcomers were slow in being accepted by the county
- the advantage claimed for this plan is that it provides us with a gentry: that is, with a class of rich people able to cultivate themselves by an expensive education
Elite is referable not to a social rank but to those members of any group or class who stand out as its flower or the ones most frequently sought after.
- the elite of the nobility
- few others of the mathematical elite
When used without qualification elite usually means the group regarded as the highest, especially as judged by social or cultural standards.
- it is the business of the college to produce an elite—superior men
—North American Review
Society is applied to that portion of a community which marks itself apart as a leisured class much given to formal entertainments, fashionable sports, and other pursuits characteristic of an active social life.
- society is now one polished horde, formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored
- there are only about four hundred people in New York Society