A pariah is a social outcast. Originally, the word was used to refer to people in hereditary positions of low class or social status; the term is also used today to describe outcasts in general, hereditary or not. Generally speaking, the position of a pariah is undesirable, since it is accompanied with a lack or respect, authority, and access to society at large.
The term comes from the Pariah caste, a caste in some parts of India and Sri Lanaka which is akin to the Untouchables, the lowest caste in India's traditionally very rigid caste system. The term is derived from the Tamil paraiyan, which means “drummer,” with the implication that this position is hereditary and traditionally despised; paraiyan itself comes from parai, a type of drum used at Indian festivals.
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Use of the word “pariah” was first recorded in English in 1613, and the term was clearly brought to Europe by British colonists. Europeans used the term incorrectly for all people of low caste in regions with caste systems, and sometimes for people without caste as well. In the 1800s, the modern sense of the word as a more general social outcast emerged, divorcing it from its traditional meaning for English speakers.
There are a number of ways to become a pariah in modern society. In many cultures, people of low economic and social class are viewed as pariahs, and they may face serious barriers as they try to work their way up in society. Lower class individuals often struggle for acceptance and equal access to services even in nations which claim to not have class systems. It is also possible to turn into a pariah, as might be the case with someone who commits a socially unacceptable act.
Once someone becomes a pariah, it can be hard to shake the label. Pariahs are often extremely ostracized, making it hard for them to establish social connections and bonds of friendship with other people. People often try to avoid socializing with pariahs both because they are viewed as socially undesirable and because they fear being linked with pariahs in the public eye. As many politicians can testify, being associated with a pariah can be devastating to a social and political career.