Wednesday, 25th February 2015

by Joshua Gaskell

Last month I wrote an entry about Alan Ross, and his U and non-U pronunciations. His ‘Essay in Sociological Linguistics’ for Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige also contains a section on U and non-U vocabulary; and I thought it would be interesting – sixty years on – to carry out an audit of how the U and non-U alternatives have fared. The table below gives Ross’s alternatives and my judgement of which of them is now in use among educated urban speakers of standard English in Britain.

Non-U U Victor, 2015
Article (meaning ‘chamber-pot’) Jerry/pot N/A (obs.)
To TAKE a bath To HAVE one’s bath U
Britain* England N/A. (Scottish nationalism has forced those who approve of Great Britain to use its name, and referring to Britain as England is now mostly the preserve of Americans. Now U Britain and non-U UK.)
Coach (meaning ‘char-à-banc’) Bus Mostly non-U (as in Victoria Coach Station), probably to allow for the distinction that Ross notes, viz. that ‘a coach runs into the country, a bus within a town’.
Corsets Stays N/A (obs.)
Coverlet Counterpane N/A (victory, oddly, goes to the alternative Ross calls ‘obsolete’: bedspread).
Cruet Salt/pepper/mustard, etc. individually. U
Cultivated/cultured Civilized Non-U (civilised being un-PC).
Cup Tea N/A (draw)
Cycle Bike N/A (draw: cycle lane, bike ride, etc.).
Dentures False teeth N/A (draw/obs.?)
Dinner (in the middle of the day) Lunch U
Dress-suit Dinner jacket/black tie/tails, etc. individually. U
Glasses Spectacles Non-U
Greens Vegetables U
Home House Still pertains?
Horse-riding Riding ?
Ill Sick Non-U (sick now sounds American, unless ‘I feel I’m going to be sick’ is meant).
Jack Knave Non-U
Lounge Hall/dining-room Still pertains, but the ‘nearest equivalent’ U-expression is sitting-room, not hall or dining-room.
Mirror Looking-glass Non-U
Note-paper Writing-paper
Pardon! (1) if the hearer does not hear the speaker properly. What? Non-U. (Ross notes that ‘U-parents and U-governesses are always trying to make children say something “politer” [than what?] – What did you say? […] [is] certainly possible.’ Possible, but non-U pardon has won out as the ‘politer’ option.)
Pardon! (2) as an apology. Sorry U
Pardon! (3) after hiccupping or belching. [Silence] Non-U (at least in pardon me).
Pleased to meet you! How d’you do? Non-U
Posh Smart
Preserve Jam U
Radio Wireless Non-U
Scottish Scotch Non-U
Serviette Table-napkin Still pertains, but U napkin.
Sweet Pudding U (though non-U dessert now in the fight).
He’s studying for an exam He’s working for an exam N/A (draw)
Teacher -master/-mistress Non-U
Toilet-paper Lavatory-paper
Wealthy Rich Still pertains?
Wire Telegram N/A (obs.)

So, the class war scores on the doors:

Non-U 15 | U 8

The non-U’s have it.

* In ‘The English Aristocracy’ – her response to Ross’s essay – Mitford proposes a few additional vocables, indicated here by their colour.
† As far as I can work out, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has had these two the wrong way round through fifteen editions, ever since ‘U and Non-U’ appeared as an entry. The fifth edition (1959) says, ‘It is U to say “luncheon” for what Non-U folk call “lunch”; “napkin” and “serviette”, “cycle” and “bike” are samples of this snobism’; and the nineteenth, ‘It is “U” to say “luncheon” for what “Non-U” folk call “lunch”, “U” to say “napkin” instead of “serviette”, and “U” to prefer “cycle” to “bike”.’

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