Talking proper: the language of U and Non-U
The release of The Riot Club, a fictionalized version of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club, based on Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh, seems a fitting moment to consider how to talk posh. In 1954 the linguist Alan C. Ross published a study of ‘Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-day English’, which first introduced the concept of ‘U’ (or upper-class) and ‘non-U’ (non-upper class). These terms were subsequently popularized by the writer and socialite Nancy Mitford, and remain a convenient shorthand for social distinctions today; an article in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, warning of the naffness of room fresheners, labelled them ‘every bit as excruciatingly non-U as coloured loo water and individual guest soaps’. To enable you to mix with the posh set while avoiding the linguistic equivalent of coloured loo water, the following guide summarizes Ross’s advice for the modern-day socialite keen to mix with the right sort.
When issuing an invitation, it should be written on writing-paper rather than note-paper. Address male guests by their surname alone, unless they are a government minister, when Sir is required, or the king, when it should be Sire. When giving your address, avoid non-U house names like Fairmeads; U speakers stick to formal titles like Shinwell Hall. I can think of a potential problem here for people who don’t live in a manor house, but I presume that not living in a manor house is also non-U.
The next difficulty is determining the correct term for the meal itself to which the guests are invited. Is dinner taken at midday or in the evening? What about lunch and supper – are these acceptable terms, or will they immediately flag your lowly status? Properly speaking, one should have lunch (or even luncheon) in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. To refer to lunch as dinner, or to use the term evening meal is to betray your non-U origins. If a dinner guest praises the supper, then the implication is that the meal was insubstantial and unsatisfying. Never issue an invitation to high-tea, as this is an exclusively non-U invention. When stating the dress code, be sure not to use the terms dress-suit or evening-dress. The refined equivalent is to state simply: ‘We will be changing for dinner’. How your guest is supposed to glean what to wear from this is a mystery to me, but I suppose that is precisely the point. If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be going.
Before the meal…
Should you be lucky enough to receive a return invitation, never arrive by bus. Should necessity require you to make use of public transport, be sure to muddle the terms bus and coach (properly, the former is used in towns and the latter in the country) to show that you are unaccustomed to such degradations. On arrival, ensure that you praise your host’s lovely house rather than home. Never refer to a room as the lounge, since for U speakers lounges are found only in hotels. When introduced to strangers, the correct response to ‘How do you do?’ is to repeat the phrase. Giving an answer, such as ‘Fine thanks’, is a major faux pas.
…during the meal…
Linguistic etiquette during the meal is crucial. You should never serve anyone greens, ask them to pass the cruet, or offer crust or crumb when cutting the bread. If you find yourself needing to hiccup or belch, you should avoid making any kind of apology. Saying pardon me or sorry is frightfully non-U. One might imagine that not belching in the first place would be more polite, but perhaps that’s a typically non-U attitude to a normal bodily function. Should you need to wipe your mouth, use your napkin not your serviette. If you need to check the result, ask for a looking glass rather than a mirror. Avoid coy euphemisms such as temple of health or WC; U speakers refer directly to the lavatory. Should you find yourself having drunk too much, remember that drunken gentlemen may become amorous or maudlin but never truculent. If your excesses have left you feeling sick (not ill), then it is perfectly acceptable for gentlemen to vomit in public.
…after the meal
How to entertain your guests after the meal is another social and linguistic minefield. Real tennis is an acceptable pursuit (but do not commit the heinous crime of playing tennis in braces). A card game might seem like safe ground, but steer clear of whist, pontoon, nap, and even slippery sam, which are all non-U. Never stand up to deal and always refer to knaves rather than jacks – a lesson Pip learned to his shame when playing with Estella in Dickens’s Great Expectations: ‘He calls the knaves, jacks, this boy’.
Observing these few crucial distinctions should enable you to mingle with the elite without anyone ever guessing that back home in Fairmeads, your WC has air fresheners, individual bars of soap, and green loo water.