The terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ (‘U’ standing for ‘upper-class’) were coined in the 1950s by Professor Alan Ross, of Birmingham University’s linguistics department, but then made famous by Nancy Mitford in her essay ‘The English Aristocracy’, which included a glossary of words and phrases supposedly favoured by one class or the other.
The ‘non-U’ words tended to be euphemistic and suggest middle-class aspirations to refinement, the ‘U’ words to be plain, direct and down-to-earth. But the whole thing felt suspiciously like an artificial construct by the upper class to boost its own sense of superiority and to protect it from infiltration by members of the class below.Alexander Chancellor here describes a distinction which, though largely forgotten today, once had quite a hold on the thinking of middle-class Britain.
Why was that? The Wikipedia entry for U and Non-U English suggests the popularity of the distinction was "a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in Britain of the 1950s, recently emerged from post-war austerities".
That has always been my theory, though it would work better if that popularity had arisen a little nearer the end of the war.
But there can be no doubt that the social changes of the war and the years after were an enormous shock to the upper classes. You can see evidence of it everywhere in the period.
In 1946 this blog's hero T.H. White paid a return visit to Cambridge and was horrified to find the Master of Christ's College helping with the washing up.
Josephine Tey's 1948 novel The Franchise Affair tells of an idyll of genteel respectability threatened by allegations of abuse by a working-class girl.
In the same year Mrs Robert Henrey, in A Film Star in Belgrave Square, wrote:
There is, perhaps, no better example than Chesham Mews of the way the well-to-do, unable any longer to keep establishments worthy of their station, have descended upon the accommodation which their forebears allotted to the groom and to the coachman.
The clerks and typists of the Ministry of Education filled the noble rooms of the former aristocratic mansions in the Square, while the aristocrats slept in hay-lofts over their cars for which, in another month, they would no longer be given any basic allowance of petrol.At least by the film Genevieve in 1953, mews living had become aspirational.
And you can also add the retrospective glamour acquired by the pre-war railway companies into the mix.
The appeal of the concept of U English was that it could mark you out as the best sort of person, whatever your current economic circumstances.
Today, the left is in economic eclipse, and it is also the left that seeks to differentiate itself by using the right of language.
Too often the tactic of the left (and too many Liberal Democrats) is to scan the language used by others for formulations that reveal that they are sexist or racist or cis normative and thus not worth engaging with.
The railways may have been privatised again, but by our language we on the left can show that we are the best sort of person. And we also show that people who do not pass this test are not worth engaging with.
There is a good articles on the left and these sort of language games by Ben Andrew on Liberal Democrat Voice today.
The comments are also instructive, whether you agree with them or not. I think the suggestion that the policing of language is characteristic of a younger political generation is spot on.