Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U and Non-U: some things never change

With reference to blogs passim about how hard it is to find distinguishing marks of the posh, I'd like to draw your attention to this little snippet I found:

", a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class. Nor, in general, is he likely to play a greater part in public affairs, be supported by other trades or professions, or engage in other pursuits or pastimes than his fellow of another class. There are, it is true, still a few minor points of life which may serve to demarcate the upper class, but they are only minor ones."

Oddly enough, this was not written last week but in 1956 by Alan S.C.Ross in his academic paper for the University of Birmingham: 'U and Non-U – An Essay in Sociological Linguistics.'

It was from this that Nancy Mitford wrote her own article on 'The English Aristocracy', for which she was revered and reviled in equal measure. (So, in fact, it wasn't Mitford who coined U - meaning upper class speaker, and Non-U, meaning not. I'd be pretty cross if I was Ross. But then again, he nearly was.)

Lots of the U and Non-U markers still hold today, although some of the "minor marks" of the upper classes, which include things such as the wearing of braces for tennis, use of the word wireless and how they hold their drink (gentlemen would, apparently, vomit in public but never be truculent when drunk) are no longer noticeable, shall we say.

Ross focuses on the addressing of envelopes (hah!), Mitford is more concerned with the definition of aristocracy (which she boils down almost entirely simply to having a title) and those linguistic things which mark out a Non-U. Those which still exist include:
Sweet: non-U for U pudding
Dinner: non-U for U luncheon (although hardly anyone says luncheon, they do say lunch)
Wealthy: non-U for U rich

Some I always used but didn't know I was being U in saying them:
Britain: non-U for U England (although I do know when to be sensitive about this. One has to move with the times. As you might have thought Liz Hurley would when she recently wrote an article headlined 'A Guide to Mumbai' and insisted on calling it 'Bombay' throughout.)
Home: non-U – 'they have a lovely home'; U - 'they've a very nice house'

But some I didn't know (and henceforth of course will pretend that that was what I always said):
Greens is non-U for U vegetables
Mental: non-U for U mad
Glasses: non U for U spectacles
Dentures: non-U for U false teeth 
Ill: non-U against U sick

To confuse things further, Mitford admits that some U-speakers will deliberately employ non-U phrases in an ironic manner (or perhaps in memory of their darling Nanny. It is a truism that the upper classes of the past were entirely brought up by the working classes, which is why they share so many characteristics even now). Also, of course, U and non-U markers change over the years.

Is it time for a 21st century version? Posh Bird throws her hat into the ring...


  1. I'm fascinated by this - did you know that Irish people never say greens, mental, dentures or ill (though we do say glasses) but use the U version instead? Also we always say England rather than Britain. I hadn't realised just how posh I am!! LOVE your blog, and am currently enjoying your book (Hatchards had sold out, so I got it from Amazon, sorry!)

  2. Rory Fellowes (relation)February 7, 2010 at 11:51 AM

    This and the previous blog are an excellent 21st century comment on class and its place in a modern society. The truth is, Elizabeth, as Jessica writes, using the words won't make you posh, but I detect a poshness of taste there, so I expect you'll be among the Saved when the God of Class comes to make his final judgement... My take is that Class is something you know about yourself, however society chooses to define it or you. I too have found a pleasant refuge from a lot of the world's nonsense here in Ireland. We just have corruption, always a classless thing..

  3. Actually, their nannies probably used the same words; one of the unusual characteristics of all this is that the very rich and the very common tended to use the same expressions(both groups believing in calling a spade a spade, I suppose), and it was the arriviste middle-classes who used all of the prettified non-U terms. Which also explains why the Irish use U terms.

    1. Actually, they would not call "a spade a spade". Terrifically, non-U. The phrase would be to call a "knave a knave"!

  4. Incidentally Elizabeth, the term "posh" was considered non-U by Ross although he did conceed that it was being more widely used amongst public school boys.

  5. A handy twitter guide to what is U and what is not: @AreYouNonU

  6. Actually, this is all very true. My Granny always said that the way you distinguish is by accent. The language of U and "working class" are the same. After all, you would never think David Cameron was cockney would you?