The English novelist Nancy Mitford, one of the famous and infamous family which also included Diana, wife of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Unity, who fell in love with Hitler and shot herself, and Jessica, the “red sheep” of the family, became well known even among those who do not read many books with her observations in the 1950s on the language, or vocabulary (sociolect), used by upper class and middle class English people, signified as U (upper) and non-U (middle).
Mitford’s essay was based on a scholarly study by the linguist Alan Ross and derived from the idea that language usage was related to class, perception of one’s own social class and anxiety about how one was perceived.
One element of the theory was that the middle classes (aspiring middle classes) were more likely to use neologisms or euphemisms, words which to them appeared naice or refained, than the plain old words that the upper classes were happy with. In reality the category of upper class here would almost certainly have included the upper middle classes, the people who ran most things in England, while the idle, landowning upper classes mostly traipsed around from Henley to Cowes to Ascot or Goodwood to London (in the season) and in the dull interludes murdered small animals.
Examples of U and non-U alternatives often quoted (non-U first) are serviette/napkin; sweet/pudding; cemetery/graveyard; lounge/drawing room. Back then, the polite middle classes said “toilet”, while the upper classes (like the working classes) said “lavatory”, or sometimes “loo”. This seems to have evolved quite considerably again. Not too many people say “toilet” now; indeed it became almost compulsory nearly forty years ago for nice middle class people to say “loo”. Back in the fifties it seems only the would-be polite said “dentures”, which was considered a euphemism. Plain folk, including upper class plain folk said “false teeth”. Does anyone remember what the papier mâché masks children used to wear, particularly at Halloween, used to be called? False faces.
There continue of course to be changes in usage; indeed there is no reason to think such changes will ever stop. Anxiety about social status, about saying the right thing, or perhaps more importantly not saying the wrong thing, is likely to remain with us. A particularly rich field is food, encouraged by the rapacious restaurant and fancy food trade: we have had vegetables, which in the 1950s apparently transformed into “greens”, and are now “sides” (to accompany “mains”), while salad – always just “lettuce” in our house, salad being the whole plateful – has become “leaves”. Gravy, I observe, is now “jus”, at least on Dublin’s Southside.
Apart from writing humorous articles about social class, Nancy Mitford wrote humorous novels about … well, social class, or at least the strange things that the upper classes get, or got, up to. Of these, the best known are probably Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, but there were quite a few others and they have now been reissued by Penguin in absolutely spiffing jackets, based on paintings by the New York-based artist Lourdes Sanchez.
What is Nancy Mitford’s attitude to those she writes about? Well, it is not exactly respectful. Here is Lady Montdore, who is splendidly rich and collects deposed European royalty:
Lady Montdore’s room, I remembered it of old, was enormous, more like a ballroom than a bedroom, and was done up in the the taste of her young days when she was a bride … The furniture was white with fat pink satin upholstery outlined in ribbon roses. Silver flower vases stood on all the tables and there were many photographs in silver frames, mostly of royal personages, with inscriptions cordial in inverse ratio to the actual importance of the personage, reigning monarchs having contented themselves with merely a Christian name, an R, and perhaps a date, while ex-Kings and Queens, Archduchesses and Grand Dukes had scattered Dearest and Darling Sonia lovingly all over their trains and uniform trousers …
… Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtseying was the consummation of this love. Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.
Something of a cross between Evelyn Waugh (a great admirer) and PG Wodehouse, with a dash of Jane Austen, Mitford’s novels have now been reissued by Penguin: Love in a Cold Climate, The Pursuit of Love, Don’t Tell Alfred, Wigs on the Green and The Blessing as individual editions and these plus Highland Fling, Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie in a Complete Novels omnibus. Great Christmas reading I would think.