A funny little game of words is taking place between the lines in the news this week. Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's blue-collar husband is being hailed as evidence of Palin's connection to working-class Americans. And the terms "blue-collar" and "working-class" are cropping up side-by-side in stories about the candidate. It's as if they're synonyms. But a quick look at Dictionary.com shows they're not.
class includes the defintion: a social stratum whose members share certain economic, social, or cultural characteristics: the lower-income classes.
In my experience, the word is most often used to make reference to that "economic" part.
blue collar has a slightly different emphasis: of or pertaining to wage-earning workers who wear work clothes or other specialized clothing on the job, as mechanics, longshoremen, and miners.
Palin's husband indeed works in a world of work-clothes-wearing laborers and probably works really hard himself. He's an oil production manager and a commercial fisherman. But class-wise, his income helps put the family well outside the group that's often called "working class" and that struggles to get by in today's economy. According to Slate, the Palin family's annual income is about $225,000, which includes Palin's $125,000-a-year income as governor plus those state of Alaska payments to residents that represent shared oil tax revenues.
So she may indeed have a strong connection to blue-collar workers, but that doesn't mean the term "working class," with all its economic emphasis, applies. The terms may have some overlapping definitions and implications, but perfectly interchangeable synonyms they ain't.
(Shout out to my husband, Ted, for calling this little word-switcheroo to my attention.)