You say servi­ette, I say nap­kin

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator - Les­lie Geddes-brown

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. Re­fer­ring to his study, Mit­ford wrote: ‘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’. 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.

Some other U and Non-u words are still fight­ing it out. I al­ways say 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 say­ing glasses as op­posed to spec­ta­cles.

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. We be­came more con­cerned to have 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.

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. In this celebrity-driven cul­ture, I hope we won’t come to be di­vided into C and Non-c.

No one had any idea of the furore No­blesse Oblige would cause

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