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U or non-U

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 (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

When it was published in September 1955, the magazine sold out immediately, and readers were told in a subsequent edition that ‘we have prepared a special reprint of Miss Mitford’s essay on “The English Aristocracy,” which will be sent to those who write for it, enclosing 2 1/2d in stamps to cover postage’.

The cover of the September 1955 edition of Encountermagazine with Nancy Mitford’s article The English Aristocracyfirst in the list of contents.

England had been blissfully unaware of U-usage until then but the article sparked off an anxious public debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery. The issue could have been taken lightheartedly, but at the time many took it very seriously and there was a good deal of soul-searching that itself fuelled the fire. This was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle classes of the 1950s, recently emerged from post-war austerities. Mitford had intended, allegedly, for this part of her article to be tongue-in-cheek, but few recognised this and Mitford received hundreds of letters from worried readers desperate to know if they were snobs or merely ‘common’. What the rest of Britain thought was obviously irrelevant.

Newspapers and magazines used it as a platform for many stories, making much more of it than was first intended. U or non-U became the buzz phrase of the day. In the meantime, the idea that one might ‘improve oneself’ by adopting the culture and manner of one’s ‘betters’, instinctively assented to before the Second World War, was greeted with resentment.

The level of anxious or amused interest was sustained to such an extent that a year later in 1956, a short book, edited by Nancy Mitford, Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy* was published.

* ‘Noblesse oblige’ is a French phrase literally meaning ‘nobility obliges’, the idea that someone with power and influence should use their social position to help other people, though it can also be viewed as giving the aristocracy a justification for their privilege.

Penguin Books brought out a paperback edition of Noblesse Oblige in 1956. It was only 109 pages long and sold for 2/6 (12.5 pence in today’s money). Noblesse Oblige was appropriately used as the title of the French version of the 1949 comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets about a commoner’s ruthless pursuit of a dukedom.

Although the subtitle of the book rather dryly suggested it was an enquiry, much of it was a witty counterblast against the anxiety and soul-searching. It comprised a re-print of Mitford’s and Ross’ articles, a number of entertaining essays, and an open letter to Nancy Mitford from the traditionalist author Evelyn Waugh. He certainly seemed to have it in for her, saying that she was a trouble maker who had only just managed to be upper class; ‘I fear that if you are taken too seriously you and Professor Ross may well drive your readers into the bin’.

The illustrations in the book were by Osbert Lancaster, the caricaturist of English manners, and a poem How to Get on in Society written by John Betjeman which satirised non-U-ness.

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It’s ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule’s comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you-
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

Betjeman’s poem reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket (she insists it is pronounced ‘bouquet’) in the early 1990s TV sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. Hyacinth’s primary aims in life is to impress people, particularly those of the upper classes, but her attempts to prove her social superiority are constantly hampered by her decidedly lower-class extended family whom she desperately seeks to hide. Notable phrases used by Hyacinth are ‘The Bucket [bouquet] residence, the lady of the house speaking’ when answering the telephone; ‘I would be very pleased if you would accept my invitation to one of my candlelight suppers’, or ‘It’s my sister Violet. She’s the one with the Mercedes, swimming pool, and room for a pony’.

Here’s a few phrases that were said to indicate whether a person was upper class or not.

U Non-U
How d’you do? Pleased to meet you (in reply)
How d’you do? (in reply) Very well thank you or Fine
Have some more tea? How is your cup?
No, thank you (in reply) I’m doing nicely, thank you
Yes, thank you (in reply) I don’t mind if I do (though a century ago this was U)
Good health Cheers
It was jolly nice It was very nice
To have one’s bath To take a bath
They’ve a very nice house They’ve (got) a lovely home
He’s working for an exam He’s studying for an exam
(no equivalent) If you don’t mind my mentioning it
What (did you say)? Pardon?
(silence) Pardon (when belching)

‘Can a non-U speaker become a U-speaker?’ was once a question of paramount importance for many Englishmen (and for some of their wives). The answer would have been that an adult can never attain complete success, that in these matters U-speakers had ears, so that one single pronunciation, word, or phrase would suffice to brand an apparent U-speaker as originally non-U (for U-speakers themselves never made ‘mistakes’). Under these circumstances, efforts to change one’s speech would surely be better abandoned.

The concepts of U and non-U now seem meaningless. Do we still have an upper class? Is royalty, the old English aristocracy, and landed gentry all that remains? At the mention of U or non-U nowadays, I would expect to hear ‘what?’. Though if you were indifferent, you might say ‘whatever’.

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