Since the royal engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, one word describing the bride-to-be has stood out more than any other. She may be beautiful, graceful...

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LONDON — Since the royal engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, one word describing the bride-to-be has stood out more than any other. She may be beautiful, graceful and rich, but Middleton is still a “commoner.”

Technically, the label fits. The 28-year-old daughter of former airline workers made good is not of noble blood and, hence, considered a commoner in the British tradition of class distinction. Yet the wide use of such an archaic and, to some, pejorative term is igniting a heated debate here about pedigree and status in modern Britain.

Royal watchers and the British media are not mincing words about the humble lineage of “Commoner Kate.” “From pit to palace,” declared London’s Daily Mail, noting her great-great-grandfather’s days as a coal miner.

“I’m not against the middle class as such, but I do query whether she has the background and breeding to be queen one day,” wrote James Whitaker, a guru of royal gossip. The Guardian, the Times of London, the Telegraph and the venerable BBC, among others, have all seen fit to dub her a “commoner.”

Self-made fortune

Others here are wincing at the notion that a young woman whose family’s self-made fortune is larger than many in the landed gentry is being so strongly defined by her bloodline in 21st century Britain. It shows, observers say, that despite the rise of mega-rich commoners such as Richard Branson and J.K. Rowling, this is still very much a society where status is measured in birthright and breeding.

“It’s quite depressing, this word, like we’re going back to a 19th century theme-park Britain, to an age of deference to the monarchy,” said Evening Standard columnist Richard Godwin, who penned a piece about the term. “But most of all, you look at Kate’s background and you see there is nothing common about her.”

In fact, her family’s less-than-regal starts have hung over Middleton since she stepped into the world of Britain’s moneyed and titled. Though hers is no Cinderella story — Middleton’s parents, who now run a successful party-supply company, comfortably footed the $32,000-a-year bill for Marlborough boarding school — Commoner Kate is said to have long dreamed of the glass slipper. Friends at Marlborough reportedly even nicknamed her “princess in waiting.”

Middleton, however, seemed to get the last laugh at St. Andrews, the university in Scotland where she met and befriended William. The two then started dating, the story goes, after he was struck by her beauty as she modeled a sheer dress at a charity fashion show.

But she was to wait eight years before her prince finally popped the question, with a close call in 2007 when the couple separated. Some say Middleton grew tired of waiting for her prince, others say her background perhaps contributed to his initial lack of commitment.

Practical problem

By accepting a commoner as the prospective mother of an heir to the British throne, the monarchy, many here say, is getting historically closer to its subjects. Middleton’s ascension could rekindle some of the lost spark between the crown and people, a cooling that only worsened after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Middleton’s family tree is nevertheless presenting Queen Elizabeth II with a practical problem. Before the spring marriage, the queen will need to decide what title to grant Middleton.

Middleton may be expected to take her husband’s name, being officially known as “Princess William” in the manner of other commoners who have married lesser members of the British royal family.

“She can’t be called Princess Catherine because she isn’t a princess in her own right,” said Christopher Wilson, the London-based royal biographer. “She might be called that by the headline writers, but she won’t really be.”

Of course, given Middleton’s roots, the rising-above-her-station story line was always a headline waiting to happen.

Jabs over roots

Zoe Williams, the noted columnist for the Guardian, said of jabs about Middleton’s roots: “What are they still doing using these terms? I am against letting them off the hook … What I prefer about America is that when people are snobbish, it’s a bit more about money. But here, it’s still about a signet ring, a family line.”

Still, much of the quibbling over the word is directed less at the suggestion that the royals are somehow better than Middleton, and more at the notion that the wealthy Middletons are somehow just like every other commoner in Britain.

Indeed, many here proudly embrace their pint-in-the-pub, working-class image, slapping the mild jab “posh” on anyone deemed too refined. That sort of Briton sees the well-to-do Middletons as being just as alien to their world as the denizens of Buckingham Palace.

“If you look closely, Kate Middleton is no commoner,” commentator Janet Street Porter argued in a BBC spot. “She went to private school, then to posh university and has been photographed in swanky nightclubs where drinks cost 20 pounds a pop … Normal? Not really.”