Posts Tagged ‘hyacinth bucket’

Do you lie on the sofa or on the settee? Do you eat pudding or a dessert? Do you wear spectacles or glasses? What does it matter? Well at one time, in post war Britain, that is after 1945, your use or choice of words was said to be an indicator of the social class to which you belonged. A lot of nonsense or a matter for serious debate? Or just lighthearted fun? It all started in 1954 when an article titled Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English by British linguist Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, appeared in a learned but obscure Finnish academic journal.

Ross’ article covered differences in word usage, pronunciation, and in writing style, but it was his thoughts on the differences in vocabulary that received the most attention. He coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to refer to the differences in English language usage between social classes. ‘U’ indicated upper class, and ‘non-U’, not upper class, though it focused on the aspiring middle classes. Ross considered that the middle classes preferred to use fancy or fashionable words, even neologisms (meaning a newly coined word) and often euphemisms, in their attempts to make themselves sound more refined. The speech of the working classes was not dealt with, as in many instances Ross considered they often stuck to the same plain and traditional words that the upper classes used, since being conscious of their status they had no need to make themselves sound more refined. Ross added that ‘it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else’.

nancy mitford, mitford sisters, bright young people, pursuit of love, u and non-u

Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was one of the ‘bright young people’ on the London social scene in the inter-war years, and is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France, and for her sharp and often provocative wit.

In his article, Ross used the semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945 by the English novelist, biographer and journalist Nancy Mitford, to exemplify upper-class speech patterns. Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the renowned Mitford sisters. There were six sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles, and they have been caricatured by the journalist Ben Macintyre, as ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.

Mitford picked up on Ross’ reference to her novel and incorporated the U and Non-U thesis into an article she was writing, The English Aristocracy, for the magazine Encounter. Her argument was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word was usually the non-upper class thing to say, or, in Mitford’s words, simply ‘non-U’. Thus it was very non-U to say ‘dentures’; ‘false teeth’ would do. ‘Ill’ was non-U; ‘sick’ was U. The non-U person ‘resides at his home’; the U person ‘lives in his house’, and so on. Nowadays, the distinction between U words and non-U seems antiquated. Were U words really plainer or ‘better’, or did the upper classes simply need to use them so as to distinguish themselves from everyone else?

U Non-U
Lunch Dinner (midday meal)
Dinner Evening Meal
Vegetables Greens
Pudding Sweet or dessert
Ice Ice cream
Jam Preserve
(no equivalent, there would be separate containers eg. salt-cellar) Cruet
(Table) Napkin Serviette (unless you are literally in France)
Sofa Settee or couch
Drawing-room or Sitting-room Lounge or front room
Chimneypiece Mantelpiece
Lavatory or loo Toilet or WC (unless you are in Italy, where ‘toiletta’ is U)
Looking-glass Mirror
Mad Mental
Decent Civil (behaviour)
(no equivalent) Rude (indecent)
(no equivalent, except possibly ‘civilised’) Cultivated or cultured (people)
Sick Ill
Die Pass on
Graveyard Cemetery
Rich Wealthy
Smart Posh
False teeth Dentures
Dinner jacket Dress suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Scent Perfume
Spectacles Glasses
Writing-paper Note-paper
Wireless Radio
Bike or bicycle Cycle
Riding Horse-riding
Master or Mistress (also prefixed eg. maths-mistress) Teacher (children also say ‘Teacher says …’)
England (Britain) Britain



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henry wriothesley, 3rd earl of southampton, national trust, pronunciation

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624)
National Trust Collection

There are a lot of surnames that are pronounced quite differently from how we might say them if we saw them written down, that is the pronunciations – or the spellings – are counter-intuitive eg. Beauchamp is pronounced beechum, Cockburn is coburn, Fiennes is fines, and Fotheringay is fungey. The strange-looking surname Wriothesley (the family name of Shakespeare’s patron the 3rd Earl of Southampton) is pronounced in any number of ways: rye-oaths-ley, reeths-ley, rith-ley, rits-ley, and rots-ley. Some might see such pronunciations are archaic, eccentric, or even annoying.

People have changed the spelling of ordinary surnames to make it more prestigious, such as changing the respectable craft name Smith to Smythe. And what could be the reason, other than wanting to sound posh, for pronouncing one’s name  in cavalier disregard of their spelling, such as saying ‘Pole’ for Powell, and ‘Fanshaw’ for Featherstonehaugh. This hardly seems at odds with the social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket in the TV series Keeping Up Appearances who insists her name is pronounced Bouquet. But many ordinary English words have contrary pronunciations so are these vexing surnames any different?

ralph fiennes, actor, pronunciation

The name of actor Ralph Fiennes is pronounced Raif Fines. His full name is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.

There are many town names with unexpected pronunciations (see here), but we seem more able to pronounce them correctly than their equivalent in surnames. This may because we often see town names such as Derby (pronounced Darby) or Leicester (pronounced Lester) on signs and maps, and then hear of them on the news, whereas we often don’t see and hear surnames at the same time. We may hear a surname without realising it is spelt quite differently, or we may see a name written down, but not know how it is pronounced.

There are some surnames where there used to be a mismatch between the spelling and the pronunciation, but the names are now usually pronounced as they are spelt. Examples are: Baldwin – bollden, Beals – bales, Costello – cost uh low, Hogg – hoag, McGill – mackle, Osbourne – oarsman, Reagan – reegunn.

There is a list of eighty (80) surnames below together with the pronunciation (using re-spelling pronunciation rather than phonetics). Many of the names are not that rare. Run down the list and see how many you can get right. (more…)

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