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What Does "Creme de la Creme" Mean?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 12 August 2014
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The idiomatic phrase “creme de la creme” in English signifies the “best of the best.” Other ways to describe this idiom include single adjectives like “superior” and “premier.” In some other uses of this phrase, it can refer to a group of people with an elevated social standing.

Most word historians agree that the phrase “creme de la creme” came directly from the French language. Indeed, the words in the phrase are written in French, and although modern English speakers recognize the phrase as being part of familiar English usage, it is still written as a set of French words.

Originally, the meaning of the phrase “creme de la creme” comes from the idea that dairy workers may separate different grades of cream by skimming fattier or denser elements off of the top of the cream when it settles. This physical task in agriculture led to the abstraction of the phrase “creme de la creme,” literally "cream of the cream," to talk about anything that has been carefully selected to be superior to another comparable element.

Linguistic experts describe the phrase “creme de la creme” as a superlative phrase. Superlatives are words like best, biggest and fastest, which compare or contrast more than two elements. Here, the phrase “creme de la creme” could effectively be called a double superlative, where the best of one element is carefully culled to provide an even better result.

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In modern times, this phrase has been adopted as the name of specific designer elements and other retail items. Still, it enjoys popular usage in the canon of English idioms, where someone who is trying to describe the best of something may call it the “creme de la creme.” The phrase has generally ceded ground to less fancy ways to describe a top item or most desired commodity. For example, some modern English slang like “the bomb” or “tops” does this same job. Other English speakers may use improper vernacular like “the bestest” or “the most awesomest” to refer to a top choice.

English speakers may also use more technical language to refer to items rather than using the phrase “creme de la creme.” One way to do this is to identify the actual top benefit of something. For example, rather than using a general idiom, a small business person assessing organic produce might say “this fruit is the most naturally produced” rather than contrasting it in a generic way. Others might use phrases like “top quality” or “most well-produced.” An Anglicized version of idiom, with an identical meaning, also exists in the form of, "cream of the crop."

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