U and Non-U

U, or should I say you, might think I am off my trolley with this blog title or maybe my carefully worded prose has finally given way to text-speak.  However U and Non-U is actually a book title from the 1950’s written by a legendary aristocrat Nancy Mitford that was all the rage amongst certain people for many years after wards.  U is for Upper Class whilst Non-U is for Middle-Class which in the USA is more akin to Working Class.  It was something I wrote about in passing over two years ago in a blog post about the history of social classes.

Most of us would agree that good manners are something that everyone regardless of their income or background can and should have.  What is more complicated are the rule of etiquette.  In the U.K. since the 19th Century the aspiring middle-classes have always wanted to emulate and fit in with the real upper class folk.

It was argued that as the upper-classes were no longer better educated or in some cases richer than anyone else, that the best way to differentiate themselves from the New Money types was with the language that they employed.

It’s still just about the case in Britain that being rich is not the same as being well-bred or coming from the right back ground with an easy example of this being the hugely ostentatious and yet very tacky wedding of David and Victoria “posh” Beckham.

Whereas middle-class and even upper middle class people might strive to show off their credentials and re-assure themselves that they have made it, the real rich aristocrats have no such need or desire.  They are comfortable with their position and have nothing to prove with a good example of this being Prince Charles and his much repaired, gnarly old coat.

Prince Charles

Prince Charles doing a good impression of a country bumpkin

This extends to use of language too and did so to an even greater degree in the 1950’s.  Whereas the upper class didn’t have to look pretentious and the working class don’t have any aspiration to try and pretend they are upper class, incredibly the two ends of the social spectrum tend to use the same words.  The middle-classes can appear that they are trying just a bit too hard to be something they’re not by using words that sound a little pretentious.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 10.23.01

U and Non-U taken from Wikipedia with the words I used highlighted in bold.

Going by the list above, I seem to be mostly working class at least in the words I use which is fine by me as one thing that irritates me is people pretending to be better than they actually are when in reality with the exception of having a better income, they often are not.  This in itself is a typically British attitude to have where it takes more than money to impress people… at least the right sort of people!

Things are more complicated these days by inverse snobbery, this is with rich people speaking with a very working class accent which doesn’t come naturally to them.  Tony Blair was a great one for that, his voice got more and more East-London as the years went by despite being of Scottish blood, living most of his life in NE England and latterly getting paid millions to do public speaking.

Even the Queen has downplayed her cut-glass accent over recent decades whereas some sectors of the BBC have presenters who by my not very ambitious secondary school standards can hardly speak English at all, at least not with any annunciation.

It’s quite interesting though that whilst we all support underdogs and people generally see the real working class as hard working underdogs, is growing up a little poor or disadvantaged that bad a thing when you realise how many of the greatest names in history started off severely disadvantaged.  What makes being poor “cool”?  Why don’t we feel equally sorry for those a little shorter, fatter or even less whiter than the typical middle-class person?   Will the next up and coming political leader take a few inches off the bones in the leg, put on a bit of weight, go bald, get a fake tan and perhaps accidentally on purpose inflict a disability on themselves?

Of course not but even today with the leadership election to the Labour Party you have 3 or 4 middle-class people talking up their working class heritage whilst sneering at the one legitimate working class candidate who isn’t portraying an image and is said to be winning the race quite comfortably.

Even if you pick the right words, the pronunciation of them may give your background away.  Which is why in the U.K. people often look down on those with a West Country or Birmingham accent or indeed all those who don’t speak with a Mockney accent rather as people in the USA from North Dakota or the Deep South might be thought of in other parts of that country.

Things are only going to get messier as people from the top and bottom of society seem to want to fit in more and more.  With mass immigration there are large sections of white youth in London and other big cities that speak a bizarre mixture of English mixed with Caribbean, Indian and Somalian slang for example which renders them almost unintelligible to everyone outside their own age group which sadly for them includes most employers.   One the bus to work sometimes I see children from all sorts of backgrounds and countries and they have to repeat themselves half a dozen times just to make a simple comment be understood which surely shows that in some ways it is more important than ever that people are taught how to speak properly whether they be U or Non-U!

I’m a bit of an old fudge, I really like listening to clear and distinct regional accents both he good and bad ones and really can’t stand the fake poshness spoken by some working class or the fake monkey by the pseudo-poor.  Call me old fashioned, if someone is on television I do think they should be able to speak more precisely and in better English than I can.  By all means speak with a very strong accent but speak clearly and correctly.  I never make any effort to change my voice or accent but I do make every accent to speak as correctly as possible.

If you’re wanting to know more about etiquette you can visit the Debrett’s website who are masters of etiquette, good manners, style and speaking.   My man Carson, recommends it!

It’s debatable if the whole U and Non-U debate is as important as it once was and to most people it doesn’t matter most of the time but it does matter to some people a lot of the time and to many of us, some of the times if only to impress at job interviews or social gatherings.

In fact that last paragraph reminds be a little of Donald Rumsfeld and his known unknowns.  “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

As someone who likes precise English, I actually didn’t see the fuss about what he said above as it made perfect sense to me (which is more than some of his policies did).  As to whether known unknowns is Non-U, I’ll leave it up to U.  And yes, I am the only person under the age of 107 who still uses the word ‘wireless’ for radio, though I do like the old word term for it of ‘Cat’s whiskers’.


About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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6 Responses to U and Non-U

  1. EBotziou says:

    Your posts are always so interesting Stephen, if one does say so oneself!


  2. Francis says:

    Excellent ànalysis

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Thinking WASP says:

    This post was fun to read!


  4. Pingback: The oldest living English language | Stephen Liddell

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