Where Did the Term WASP Originate?

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Key Takeaways:

  • The term WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and refers to elite white Americans of British ancestry.
  • It was first used by political scientist Andrew Hacker in 1957 but popularized by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in his 1964 book.
  • The term describes a dominant social elite in American history that held disproportionate cultural, political, and economic influence.
  • It has been used both as a neutral descriptor of historic power structures and more pejoratively to critique elite privilege.
  • Related terms like WASP have also been used in other Anglo Saxon-derived cultures like Canada and Australia.


The acronym “WASP” is a familiar one in American culture, often used to designate elite status and privilege. But where exactly did this term originate and what does it mean?

This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the term “WASP,” including its historical origins and evolution in usage over time. We’ll explore the initial coinage of the phrase, its popularization, and the meaning behind the acronym. Additionally, we’ll look at how “WASP” has been employed both as a descriptive label and pejoratively. By the end, you’ll have a thorough understanding of this term and its place in the sociological lexicon. Gaining insight into the roots of “WASP” provides a window into important aspects of cultural identity, power, and privilege in America.

What Does WASP Mean as an Acronym?

The term WASP stands for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” describing Americans of predominantly British ancestry and Protestant religious affiliation.

Specifically, it refers to members of a elite social class composed of wealthy, well-connected individuals from Anglo-Saxon background who adhered to various Protestant denominations. This included prominent American families that derived power from their English ancestry, Puritan faith, and cultural endowments.

The acronym concisely encapsulates these elements – the white racial identity, Anglo-Saxon ethnic heritage, and Protestant religious faith – that defined membership in this dominant social echelon for much of American history.

Who First Coined the Term WASP?

The term “WASP” as shorthand for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was first coined by political scientist Andrew Hacker in his 1957 article “The Revolt Against the Elites” published in The Reporter magazine.

However, the phrase did not gain widespread popularity at this time. It was sociologist E. Digby Baltzell’s 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America that substantially popularized the acronym.

In his sociohistorical analysis, Baltzell used the term WASP extensively to refer to the hereditary American upper class descended from colonial British settlers. The book solidified “WASP” as common shorthand to describe the historically dominant white Protestant elite in America.

So while Hacker was the first to create the abbreviation, Baltzell’s usage in his highly influential book cemented its place as a racial and sociological category. After the 1960s, the term proliferated in wider discussions about privilege, exclusion, and cultural identity.

What Groups Does WASP Describe?

The term has been broadly used to characterize elite American families of predominantly English Protestant ancestry.

According to Baltzell’s analysis, WASPs largely descended from the colonial era establishment and held disproportional cultural, political, and economic influence in the 20th century despite no longer numerically dominating the populace.

Some prominent Old Money American families regarded as WASPs include names like Rockefeller, Du Pont, Roosevelt, Forbes, and Morgan. However, the term has also been applied more broadly to white Americans of British Protestant upbringing regardless of their wealth and influence.

Culturally, WASPs were regarded as belonging to or identifying with the Anglo-Saxon derived mainstream of America as opposed to later immigrant groups. They maintained a strong association with Ivy League education, “high culture,” and Episcopalian or Presbyterian religious traditions.

While English extract was central, some arguments have been made for inclusion of related Northern European ethnicities like the Dutch, Germans, and Scots within America’s historic WASP elite as well.

How Has WASP Been Used in Social and Academic Contexts?

Since its inception, the term WASP has carried a variety of connotations, ranging from neutral description to pointed criticism:

  • As a sociological category, it has been used matter-of-factly to denote and study elite segments of white Protestant Americans. Hacker and Baltzell both employed it as an academic term to analyze power structures without passing judgement.
  • However, it also gained usage as a pejorative term used to critique the perceived exclusivity, privilege, and tacit cultural domination of old line Anglo elites in America. Some scholars and commentators have used it derisively.
  • In popular discourse, its meaning has expanded beyond academics to also describe lifestyle associated with traditional East Coast preppy culture – things like country clubs, sailing, and Ivy pedigree.

So based on the context, “WASP” can refer neutrally to a historic American elite, critique racialized structures of power, or evoke a set of elite cultural signifiers. This flexibility has contributed to its enduring relevance.

How Widespread is Use of Related Terms Like WASP?

Beyond just the United States, the term WASP and variations on it have also been used to describe elite segments of Anglo-Saxon-derived societies like Australia and Canada:

  • In Australia, “WASP” evolved into the phrase “Anglo-Celts” to describe those of chiefly English and Irish Protestant ancestry who historically dominated that nation’s cultural identity and upper crust.
  • In Canada, a term like “Anglo-Saxon” or abbreviation “Anglo” is more commonly used than WASP. But it has related connotations of English Canadian establishment in a diverse nation with French, Indigenous, and immigrant communities.

So while the specificity of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant does not transfer beyond the American context, related terms for Anglo elites persist in other Western nations wrestling with diversity today.

What Does Use of WASP Imply About Race and Privilege?

At its core, the term WASP conveys notions about racial, ethnic, and religious identity markers that have carried assumptions of prestige, acceptability, and inherent privilege throughout much of American history.

The acronym makes explicit the linkage between being both “white” and “Anglo-Saxon” Protestant as the assumed standard for full cultural membership and higher status in society.

By encapsulating these traits, the phrase’s very existence recognizes that racial, ethnic, and religious factors shaped power structures in America’s past and present.

Therefore, the term WASP and its evolutions hold enduring relevance as society continues to grapple with issues of equality, representation, and dismantling institutionalized privilege along racial and ethnic lines.


In summary, the term WASP originated in the late 1950s but rose to prominence in the 1960s as shorthand to describe elite white Protestant Americans of British descent. While sometimes employed neutrally as a sociological descriptor, it has also been used more pejoratively as critique of this group’s historic privilege. Both in academic and popular interpretations, WASP conveys multifaceted associations related to identity, power, culture, and heritage. The longevity of the term and its variations across Anglo-derived nations are a testament to its continuing relevance in unpacking complex issues of race, diversity, and inclusivity in society today.

Frequently Asked Questions

When did “WASP” become a widely recognized term?

While first coined in 1957, “WASP” became widely recognized after sociologist E. Digby Baltzell used it extensively in his highly influential 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America.

What Protestant denominations were most associated with WASPs?

WASPs were predominantly affiliated with Protestant groups like Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists that were established by English and Scottish settlers during colonial times.

Did only wealthy old money families qualify as WASPs?

While the term is associated with elite pedigree, it has been used to describe a broader segment of white Americans belonging to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant mainstream, beyond just upper class blue bloods. Middle class backgrounds rooted in English Protestant tradition also qualified.

Is WASP still commonly used today?

Use of the non-academic sense of WASP has declined since its peak in the 1960s. But the term endures in discussions of America’s historic power structures, privilege, and tensions around diversity. It remains a relevant lens for viewing socioeconomic issues.

Were any non-English European ancestries included under the WASP label?

Some arguments have been made for inclusion of certain other Northern European Protestant groups like Dutch, German, and Scottish Americans within the historic WASP elite given assimilation into Anglo-Saxon derived culture.

How does WASP relate to “Whiteness” as a sociological concept?

WASP is linked to notions of “Whiteness” as its constituent term “White” denotes race as tied to power and acceptability. The creation of a WASP elite presupposed those outside that realm as “Othered” groups excluded from full societal participation and privileges.

Does WASP accurately reflect today’s racial diversity within elite American circles?

The term WASP as shorthand for a racially homogeneous elite establishment is increasingly outdated given growing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity among highly prominent American families and individuals with prestige today.

What are some similar acronyms used in other Anglo-Saxon based cultures?

In Australia, “Anglo-Celt” is a related term for those of English and Irish Protestant background. In Canada, abbreviations like “Anglo” or “Anglo-Saxon” have been used similarly to WASP to denote British heritage and privilege.

Why has WASP taken on negative connotations?

The term has developed pejorative connotations because it represents exclusion of non-WASPs from power, underscores unmerited privilege based on identity traits, and conveys perceived snobbery of elite old money Anglo-Saxon culture

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