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What Does it Mean to Be "Down-to-Earth"?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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"Down-to-earth" is one of several idiomatic expressions that are used to describe people and approaches that are practical and relatively free of any type of pretension. Typically, an individual who is down to earth is someone who is very approachable and often somewhat modest about his or her achievements. The choice of lifestyle is usually one of moderation in that possessions are considered enjoyable but are not as important as people and relationships.

While there is some debate on exactly when the phrase "down-to-earth" was first introduced, there is some evidence to support the idiom’s emergence in the early years of the 20th century, in connection with the burgeoning movie industry in the United States. Early fan magazines would sometimes note that certain movie actors and actresses who made a great deal of money chose to live relatively simplistic lives in terms of their homes and cars, instead of living a lavish lifestyle. This was viewed as a positive attribute, demonstrating practicality and allowed fans to relate more closely to their screen heroes.

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There is also some evidence that "down-to-earth" has some connection with a common British saying, "close to the earth." This UK expression is often applied to people who live rural lifestyles that involve sometimes creative ways of recycling and making use of what they already have on hand, rather than purchasing new items whenever a need arises. The term is also sometimes applied to people who till the earth as a means of making a living, often living a lifestyle that is not fettered with the congestion and stress of city life.

At times, a person who is considered down-to-earth may also be thought of as being somewhat less educated, at least in terms of formal education. This is rarely the case, as many people who choose to be accessible to others and live without a great deal of excess are very well educated, both in the formal sense and in terms of practical experience. This perception, even if false, sometimes causes others to dismiss people who are down-to-earth, or question the wisdom they have to offer.

Over the years, the term "down-to-earth" has come to be applied to just about anyone who is considered unpretentious in their dealings with other people, and who choose to live a lifestyle that is comfortable but not excessive. People who are down-to-earth tend to be very approachable, enjoy being with people and are often dismissive of any type of class structure within a community or society. These attributes often spill over from their private lives and into the way they choose to earn a living or do business with others, conveying the impression of being honest and open as well as practical.

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