U and Non-U, 60 years on: Is the English language still full of pitfalls?

George Bernard Shaw wrote in the preface to Pygmalion that it's impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth 'without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.' Leslie Geddes-Brown wonders if it's still true.

It is now 60 years since Nancy Mitford and others published Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy. This was a series of essays about upper-class English (and its opposite), known better to all of us as U and Non-U (U being upper class).

The whole thing started with an essay by Alan S. C. Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, in an obscure Finnish linguistic publication. At the time, he stated that: ‘It is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished, since they are neither cleaner, richer nor better-educated than anyone else.’

How Mitford and her co-writers, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman (who contributed his already published poem How to Get on in Society), Christopher Sykes and ‘Strix’ (pseudonym of Peter Fleming, brother of Ian), came across the original is anyone’s guess. And I don’t think that Prof Ross actually listed all of the words unacceptable to the upper classes.

I suspect – I would like to suspect – that Mitford made a whole lot up in the spirit of pure mischief. That would make the whole episode even more fun.

No one, it seems, had any idea of the furore Noblesse Oblige would cause. One of the words blacklisted was ‘mirror’. No one who had any pretensions to be aristocratic would let such a description through their lips; aristos used ‘looking glass’.

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Consternation chez moi. My mother immediately decreed that we had always called them looking glasses (we hadn’t) and that we should make sure we went on doing so.

Hew’s mother did the same, adding that, of course, the looking glass hung above the chimneypiece, not the mantlepiece, a word cast into outer darkness. What’s wrong with mantlepiece? I’m glad to see it’s made a full recovery.

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Some other U and Non-U words are still fighting it out. I always says wireless (correct) rather than radio (proley), but not because I’m a duchess. I just always have.

I do still think that napkin is preferable to serviette and sofa to settee, which is pure snobbery, but can’t see what is wrong with glasses as opposed to spectacles.

A sort of counter culture existed at the time. I remember being admonished for saying ‘What?’ rather than ‘Pardon?’ and Hew had a part-time nanny who told him off for saying he had ‘had enough’ pudding. ‘You should say you’ve had an ample sufficiency,’ she declared.

It was a difficult tightrope to walk. In her novel The Pursuit of Love, Mitford has the irascible Uncle Matthew (the fictional counterpart of her father, Lord Redesdale) yelling – his constant mode of speech – that Fanny used the description ‘notepaper’ when she meant ‘writing paper’.

Did you know that saying notepaper put you irremediably among the plebs? And how about cycle, which isn’t okay either? Use bike, if you please.

Could it only be in England that we have these class tortures? I don’t suppose for a moment the Scots, Welsh and Irish anguish about whether scent is more correct than perfume. And although the French seem to have a bugbear about words derived from English, such as blue jeans, they don’t get upset when their aristos employ a different language.

U distinctions largely died out, I think, with the advent of media types, such as cockney actors and photographers in the 1960s, who had accents. Instead of pretending to be dukes, we were more concerned to be born with a fruity cockney accent like Michael Caine, David Bailey or Twiggy. The accent of this century is, so far, either Estuary English or Mockney and, unsurprisingly, I don’t think we much care today whether someone is nobly born or an Hon.

However, although the abandonment of silly class distinctions can’t be wrong, you can bet some other way of distinguishing the posh from others lurks in our psyches.

I would just like to think we won’t be trying to ape celebrities through this decade. A sort of C and Non-C.

Leslie Geddes-Brown

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