Photo by Salt Water New England

Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Definition of Preppy

Photo taken by Salt Water New England at Fashion Institute of Technology.

Preppy: A fairly specific reference to people who graduated from New England prep schools in the 20th Century and live(d) in general accordance to the ethos these schools represented.  The further (and farther) one strays from this, the weaker the provenance.  

When coming across the term "Preppy" in mass or social media, it mostly means "Preppy-style" which, usually can be thought of as, "Not-preppy-at-all."   Preppy-style is a derivative version of a Westport to Boston aesthetic of the 1950s through the 1970s (See The Thing Before Preppy), but also reflects fashion trends, self-parody, and the aspirations of other cultures. 

66 comments:

  1. For us with our noses pressed to the glass who didn't attend some of the finest prep schools in New England, what do you mean by "in general accordance to the ethos these schools represented." What were the essential elements of that ethos? How do you define or describe it?

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    1. Logos appeals to the audience's reason, building up logical arguments. Ethos appeals to the speaker's status or authority, making the audience more likely to trust them. Pathos appeals to the emotions, trying to make the audience feel angry or sympathetic, for example.

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    2. You can learn about that ethos in The Headmaster by John McPhee. That’s a good place to start. GLH

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    3. What are you all talking about? I went to one of the finest boarding schools in CT. Certain we are all in the same wheel- house, but let one be.

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    4. Any dictionary will give a far more relevant definition of ethos. One such example: "the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period".

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    5. As a graduate of a New England prep school who adheres to the ethos that school represented, I avoid using the term "Preppy", as it has become a catchall term.

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    6. Even though I think this question of “New England being the truest Traditional/Prep area and they belong to an elite club of WASP that no one else may enter” is the funniest ๐Ÿ˜‚ thing I’ve ever heard…. I still enjoy reading this blog and following Mrs. Aldrich on Instagram. She has good taste, if a tad dull sometimes. Everyone knows that Virginia was the Colony with loyal, aristocratic people who were Anglican (not separatists!) They were called the King’s “Old Dominion” and took the name of their British counterparts in the English Civil War, “The Cavalier’s”. I’m sure those in New England were more on the side of that dour Oliver Cromwell. We are the first Traditional/Prep/Aristocratic/WASP etc if anyone is taking notes or scoring points. Good Heavens, the Virginians were establishing William and Mary in 1693 while the New England group were hunting “witches” and burning them ๐Ÿ˜‚. Southern Tradionalist, or for that matter, anyone in the USA who is a traditionalist and/or Prep in dress or lifestyle you don’t need anyone’s approval. I’m sure Mrs. Aldrich would be humble enough to admit that she is not the gate keeper to this exclusive club. P.S. I’m not sure you know exactly what “cosplay” really is when you refer to someone’s attire being inauthentic traditional/prep or someone unworthy wearing an approved Traditional/Prep style. The true meaning and the true cosplayers wouldn’t agree with any of this ๐Ÿค”

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    7. Hun, no witches were burned in New England. And the South lost, and is not going to rise again, ever. Harvard had been in operation for 57 years before William and Mary was even a hole in the dirt. Maybe they forgot to teach you this at the Daughters of the Peach Cobbler Sisterhood Cotillion Committee. You could probably do with a primer on general American colonial history, too, while we're at it, but no one here has the time to educate pompous, aspirational southern Karens.

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  2. I won’t dive too far into this debate but in Virginia there are a number of well regarded preparatory schools such as Episcopal, Norfolk Academy, and Woodberry Forest. William and Mary is one of the nation’s oldest Universities (1693). The Colony of Virginia was the first English Colony in fact. So, I’m not sure how New England is able to claim a monopoly on carrying on the Anglican Ethos. (Please explain) There are still pockets of Virginia where the preparatory school values truly shine through. I unfortunately know little about the history of Georgia but imagine that the original writer of this post is not in fact referencing the Instagram “Prep” known for Cheap jeeps, Starbucks cups, and horrific giant monograms. Rather they refer to the Southern man or woman raised to honor tradition, stewardship, duty and perseverance. (And it just so happens that they’re probably wearing the same garb often given such prominence on this blog.)
    JM Virginia

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    1. "Rather they refer to the Southern man or woman raised to honor tradition, stewardship, duty and perseverance." Yes, I also think this was the spirit the question was asked in.

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    2. As a Norfolk Academy (1728) alumnus who also had experience with a New England prep school, I found them much more alike than different. The southerners seemed to dress a bit better, but their climate allowed for it. You did not need a heavy sweater under your blazer. Northerners loved lacrosse and the beach. Southerners seemed to prefer basketball and golf. All loved sailing. Both had the same cliques of boys who were competitive in academics, boys who were competitive at athletics, and boys who were competitive at drinking.

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    3. I’m sure this will ruffle many feathers on the proverbial needlepoint duck, and given that the opportunity presented itself, I don’t mind taking advantage of a good time. I find it mildly amusing that New Englanders have somehow convinced themselves - and the country for that matter - that it’s some historical bastion of elite, old-wealth, WASP culture, and refashioned itself into this ersatz, aristocratic society; though through its own hubris, has all but destroyed any vestige of traditionalism in NE. The middle class merchants that settled the region in the early to mid 17th century, and to an even lesser degree, the Mayflower passengers that everyone works so diligently to claim descent from, couldn’t be further from this revisionist, postbellum narrative. The Anglican tradition, the reverence for England, the polite society, and a traditional worldview originated, without question, in Virginia. You know, the colony that wasn’t settled by the cult that opposed the church and threw a tantrum when it couldn’t impose its cultish will on Parliament. The idea that Puritan settlers, Congregationalists and Unitarians were the source of “prep” culture is laughable; it’s as rich as George H.W. Bush reinventing himself as a Texas good ol’ boy. Hell, New England was even given its name by John Smith as a way to get back at the Virginia colony after being mistreated. The switcharoo that came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — where New England decided it wanted to imitate the aristocracy of England — was in response to new found wealth through shipping and manufacturing. Sure, you could perhaps trace certain sartorial beginnings of “prep” to these boarding schools, but while this new-wealth, parvenu class was working hard to pass themselves off as cultural aristocrats, Virginians already were.

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    4. Anonymous December 4, 2021 at 12:42 AM:

      Methinks thou hast thrown much more than a Monkey Wrench (as the Puritans would say) - thou hast heaved a Hydrogen Bomb into the witches brew of regional Pomp and Circumstance.

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    5. To anonymous at 12:42 - YES! YES! YES! Everything you have said is 100% TRUTH. While I am sure I am sure that I do qualify for Mayflower society I have never in a million years considered it. Jamestowne Society, all day, every day.

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    6. There is another prep school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where my wife's grandparents labored through the lean years of the Great Depression. Virginia Episcopal School is presumably well-regarded. It is currently co-ed and has both day and boarding students. Her grandfather attended EHS in Alexandria. My father and grandfather never went to high school.

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  3. Obviously there are "real" Preps all over this country. However, most of the "preppy" blogs that I have come across tend to focus on mostly fashion and home decor. I think that's one reason why most people in this country would define the term "preppy" by those parameters. I think changing the name of this blog to SWNE was one of the best things Muffy could have done. It puts the focus on a more New England "style" which may or may not also be "preppy". Sadly, I can't imagine that a blog about actual Preppy things like "tradition, stewardship, duty and perseverance" would get much a readership.

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    1. I agree with your comment, all but the end. If a person like Jordan Peterson can become a cultural phenomenon from telling young men to clean their rooms and take on more responsibility, surely a blog of aforementioned topics could be quite successful.

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    2. You don't seem like much of a reader, Anon 3:44, but I can tell you do enjoy your time online.

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  4. Kudos to any boarding school who can turn around the life of a 14 year old. Might they imbue them with any “ethos” whatsoever? One who arrives on the doorstep without having received the proper character building guidance of conscientious parents or guardians. Boarding schools accepting troubled students are many. Many parents expect improvements in a child’s behavior in exchange for tuition payments. It is a tall order.

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  5. Tradition will out!

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  6. I feel as though the word "preppy" has become imbued with so many different meanings, most of which aren't what readers of this blog would likely think of when using the word. Personally, I now try to avoid using "preppy" to describe myself. I would love to come up with a new word, though!

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  7. For those seeking to learn more about the ethos, I suggest Clifford Putney's Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Many independent schools, summer camps, and social clubs were founded in this era under this prevailing view, and its cultural legacy remains.

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  8. I tend toward the SWNE response but the question does not really resonate with me. It feels like ground that has been plowed over...and over...and over...

    One artifact for those interested is Nelson Aldrich's cover story in The Atlantic from circa 1978. I don't remember the title but I do remember it is both insightful and damned obnoxious.

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  9. Today the word "preppy" is synonymous with "preppy-style," just as Muffy says. While there are similarities between northern and southern "prep," there are differences. In general, southern prep tends to be more label driven, and what I call "frat boy prep," i.e. boys playing dress up with a style they think represents wealth and class, but just makes them look foolish. The most important component of preppy style is understatement and authenticity. Frat boy prep has neither. Quality, heritage, and practicality are also highly valued, which leads those who adhere to a certain "ethos" to certain clothing brands and types of clothing.

    Bottom line: If you "try" to be preppy, you won't succeed. You either are or you aren't.

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  10. I went to St. Pauls and then Penn. ( St. A’s) in the late 70’s. As did my father and grandfather. And I would say that I have met dozens if not hundreds of people in life I would consider as preppy or even more so than most of the people I spent those eight years with. So you are or you aren’t- whether or not you went to a prep school.

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  11. I'm having all kinds of mixed reactions reading the comments above. I agree that calling this a New England blog is better than calling it a preppy blog since nobody seems to agree on what the word "preppy" means. I'm sensing a bit of snobbery related to the word preppy and, coming from a long line of Ivy League graduates, I feel uncomfortable about that. Snobbery hasn't been my experience.

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    1. I get a sense of snobbery with a lot of the comments on various posts on this blog in general.

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    2. Yes, unfortunately. I love the traditional style, but I would never even pretend to be anything other than what I am (Eurasian-American), and although I dress like I come from Maine and have English sensibilities, I don't like the snobbery implied in the term "preppy" so I never use the word.

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    3. I think the term "preppy" as a style is relatively recent. It used to be "Ivy" or collegiate. It's possible this blog was renamed to avoid confusion with "preppers."

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    4. "I'm sensing snobbery" followed by preening that you come "from a long line of Ivy League graduates" is absolutely precious in spite of its fairly "echo chamber" quality.

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  12. WASPs tend to be fundamentally similar (and I'm not talking about wearing whale pants) whether they live in the Northeast or the South. Prep school graduates (and I mean the really excellent prep schools) tend to be fundamentally similar whether they live in the Northeast or the South. But a prep school graduate may not be a WASP, and vice versa.
    PS- I wish southerners would stop asking for validation on this site. Have confidence in yourselves!

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    1. The acronym “WASP” is casually referred to often. “WAS” might be more accurate. Less than 2,000,000 Americans identify as members of the Episcopal Church. Congregationalists, I suppose, can wear the WASP moniker, as it applies to discussion about “prep.” This thanks, mostly, to their geographical concentration in southern New England. What about Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists? Are they included as WASPs?”

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    2. They are in fact "Protestants," as are Lutherans, so yes. They are included in WASPs.

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    3. Understood. But what about the “AS” in WASP? Are not Lutherans primarily German or Scandinavian? How tightly are the wagons circled around the Anglo Saxons?

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  13. The prep school world is pockmarked with potential pitfalls. Many would claim there are but three “real” prep schools. Others might expand the list to perhaps a half dozen, plus one or two more. From thence it becomes a very slippery slope. “Culture” replaces academic rigor as one quickly descends down the ladder.

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  14. Historically, Preppy was reserved for a certain class of New England WASP. That is not say that others around the Country did not have similar ethos, or experiences, and yet prior to the 1980s would most likely have just been thought of as upper middle class. In addition to whichever Angelican Ethos one may (or may not) have carried with them through out their lives, there also exists a particular New England sensibility that you don't find elsewhere. To me, that sensibility is what truly defines Preppy. While the Southern gentleman and lady also have their own historical legacies, as well as Southern Hospitality, the term Southern Preppy was created on the Internet.

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    1. New Englanders do seem to have more of a “make do” approach than other Americans. It perhaps follows from the rocky soils and rough waters from which historically they gained their livelihood. They are happier, research shows, with what they have (the size of their homes, for example). They, in general unlike most Americans, do not aspire to own dwellings considerably larger than what they already have.

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    2. Yes, growing up I was taught to "make what is old new again, if you can't make do, then do without".

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  15. Kent School epitomized Prep, WASP (Episcopal), culture, work ethic, and common coolness to everyone. I had to read the inquiry on ethos again to resurrect that private sector of everyday-common awareness toward the goodness in others. Go Kent.

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    1. As a current Kent School parent, I can assure you that the best elements that you remember are alive and well at Kent. The faces on campus are different and the geographic draw of the school is global, but the core culture of academic rigor, community service, and muscular Christianity (Episcopal variety) instilled by Fr. Sill still prevails in a modern age. Temperantia, Fiducia, Constantia: Go Kent!

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    2. Thank you! Simplicity Of Life, Directness Of Purpose, Self Reliance. That in itself speaks volumes.

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    3. You are missing the point here. Dilution of the Puritan roots is not at all what keeps any school true to their values. It is not a negative point, rather a moving away from the Puritan roots.

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    4. This does not have to be an issue of judging one regions basic values to another. Please read even the summary of Albion’s Seed. It’s simply about the basic traits of the different groups of people who came to this country from the UK. Don’t make more of it please. That being said we all have our preferences based on where we live here.

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    5. @Anonymous - 12/4/21 - 8:43 a.m. Just started reading Albion's Seed. Fantastic intro, looking forward to the rest. I've already learned so much about Folksways and their "Qualitative and Quantitative Indicators." Thanks for the recommendation. Already changing my perspective on what makes "us" us. - hrplo

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    6. Must one graduate from a prep school to make the grade? Getting kicked out is a fine old prep tradition.

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    7. One of my wife's two first cousins attended a prep school in Alexandria, Virginia, and true to form, was kicked out. I don't know which high school from which he eventually graduated but he went on to attend several universities, receiving a master's in journalism from Michigan. He's written a few books but spent most of his time overseas as a reporter. Also true to form, he was present in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but was kicked out for divulging a little too much information in a report, which I happened to hear on the radio one morning on my way to work. He spent several years in Afghanistan in various capacities. He's an interesting individual and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. He has been especially insightful regarding conditions in the different areas of the world where he has worked. I particularly recall him sitting in our living room and predicting the civil war in Yugoslavia. His father is an Episcopal priest.

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  16. This will not be resolved until I instruct you. That may occur soon or it may not, depending on my mood and Muffy’s willingness to publish my instruction. Stayed tuned

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    1. I'm here for it Ferd. So glad you're back to posting.

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    2. Oh, please.... Pomposity at its worst.

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    3. Dear Momma, Oscar Wilde, of whom many of your ilk also thought pompose, once remarked 'Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.' Alas, I am not Oscar Wilde. Your vision of pomposity is filtered through a lense of a leaden, prosaic life, one which undoubtedly considers Lord & Taylor (RIP) to be a mecca along with the Magic Kingdom. It is true that Miffy can't censor her readers for lack of intellect. More's the pity in your case.

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    4. Momma, where is Lansing Michigan? For that matter, where is Michigan, somewhere near Iowa?

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    5. Dear Cirquitor aka Ferd, thankfully there are few in this world who display, as you do, such arrogant pomposity. There is already too much ugliness out there. It is clear that your attempts at humor, while dripping with derisive sarcasm, come at the expense of others. To mock and insult other groups, opinions, geographical regions, etc., displays an undercurrent of meanness, a quality which I doubt Muffy ever intends or hopes for when penning her blog. P.S. Just an FYI, you can use Google to learn where Lansing is.

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    6. I found East Lansing. Apparently something entitled ‘Michigan State’ is there. Couldn’t find Lansing though. Perhaps Google couldn’t find it either. is it near Chicago?

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    7. Dear Mommatola, how thoughtless of me to think that a biking, hiking mother-offour from the Rust Belt would be unable to not only appreciate, but also contribute to, Muffy's NESW aesthetic. I had, indeed, forgotten that Michigan has lighthouses. (It does, doesn't it?) And, shamefully, I also forgot that Michigan is where they fabricate cars which nobody in New England would be caught dead driving. Yes, you have certainly established your bona-fides. And, after all, this is not about right or wrong, is it Mommatola? My late friend Oscar Wilde understood this too when he quipped "It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." I may be many things to many people, but tedious is not one of them, madam.

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    8. Dear Ferd Cirquitor, see...your latest post just proved the assertions I made in my 12:23pm post to you. When the going gets tough, you attack with meanness. You mock and are disdainful of the activities I enjoy, my profile name, the area of our great country where I live, the American automobile industry which supported, and still does support many thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of hard-working families. Your comment, "And, shamefully, I also forgot that Michigan is where they fabricate cars which nobody in New England would be caught dead driving", is hard to fathom it is so incredibly insulting, and on so many levels. Since your "friend", Oscar Wilde believed that people are either charming or tedious, and you claim to not be tedious, does that then mean that you are charming? If your answer is yes, then I must disagree. A person whose posts are as meanspirited and belittling as yours is never charming. Meanspirited and belittling posts such as yours are indeed tedious. Further, I believe, that those types of posts are not at all in the spirit of Muffy's intentions in writing both The Daily Prep and SWNE (not NESW, as you wrote above.) Lastly, I'm certain I'm not the only one in Muffy's audience who finds your pompous and arrogant posts to be unenjoyable and lacking in humor.

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    9. Thou are not charming either.

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  17. An understanding of the historical and cultural evolution of both New England and Southern prep types may be gleaned from David Hackett Fischer's seminal book ALBION'S SEED: FOUR BRITISH FOLKWAYS IN AMERICA.

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  18. Well, we use more starch down South & don't take ourselves too seriously. Enuff said.

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    1. Interesting. The one thing I'd never say about the South is that they don't take themselves too seriously.

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  19. I'm a product of public secondary schools in New England, where 'preppy' described how some kids dressed more than anything else. i got a full dose at a private university (ivy) where many classmates came from private/boarding schools. By that time, in the mid-80s, i think it was becoming more difficult to stereotype kids coming from prep schools as economically or socially elite or as people with northeastern/yankee mores and reserve. Prep schools increasingly prioritized geographic and socioeconomic diversity and serious recruiting of high-level athletes. In turn, that meant it was becoming less fair or accurate to generalize about the manners, attitudes, or characteristics traditionally associated with prep schools, considering the population attending them was evolving. As a descendant of turn-of-the-century immigrants who started out in this country in Lower East Side tenements & doing trade work in small New England towns, i don't consider myself to be preppy. However, a lot of people in my family tree ended up at prep schools and universities at the heart of what preppy is, or used to be anyway.

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  20. I LOATHE the word 'preppy.' My family is about as WASP as one can be. Jamestowne Society, DAR, Colonial Dames and generations of Social Register. I even hate the acronym WASP because I know families of color that fit the same stereotype. We never claim to be. These things mentioned don't make us any better than anyone. I'm always amused that so many New Englanders think they have a monopoly on this lifestyle.

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    1. That's so fascinating! It's amazing how many genuinely patrician people (I mean, "as WASP as one can be....etc.") wouldn't ever dream of scrolling through the Internet and listing all their perceived social credentials. So many of them would find it common and vulgar beyond words. How wonderful for you that you don't!

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  21. Merry Christmas to all friends of SWNE.God bless the South!!!

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