In response to my toilet talk number one (geddit!?!) post, one of my most assiduousest followers (Here’s to you, M******t!) asked when it became de rigueur in British polite society not to refer to the kasi as a toilet. In other words, when toilet became what is/was known as non-U. It’s a long story, so please bear with…
For the benefit of my transatlantic reader(s) and the young … toilet falls– or fell – into the category of words that the English/British upper classes would supposedly never use, a group of words classified as ‘non-U’ [i.e. non-upper-class].
Such distinctions must seem entirely baffling to those drinking nectar and ambrosia in the land of the free. Let’s explain. At one time, not that long ago, in England/Britain, which synonym you chose of a pair immediately identified the rung you occupied on the social ladder.
Referring to ‘a square piece of cloth or paper used at a meal to wipe the fingers or lips’ as a serviette meant you were a lower-ordersy sort of cove, and to be confined instantly to social outer darkness, while calling the same item a napkin meant either you really were posh or else had skilfully trained yourself to sound it.
Similarly, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all’ is not a sentiment a well-born British Evil Queen would have expressed, since looking glass, scansion notwithstanding, was the snob-approved synonym.1
Where did the U/non-U distinction come from?
While the distinctions themselves must clearly predate any description of them, it was a linguist who coined the terms and then an aristo who brought them to somewhat clamorous public attention—the first in 1954, the second, the following year.
An obscure Finnish academic journal, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen2 (‘The Bulletin of the Neo-Philological Society of Helsinki, Vol. 55. No. 1, 1954, pp. 20-56, available at JSTOR and also here) published an article by Ross entitled Linguistic Class Indicators in Present-Day English. Not a title, or indeed a source, you might think, to set the Thames on fire. But in 1954, in a British (specifically English) context, ‘class’, and in particular class-defined language, was a seriously hot-button topic.
Ross included in his article a list of word/phrase pairs, such as writing paper (U) and notepaper (non-U), How do you do? (U in reply to How do you do?, while Pleased to meet you would be utterly non-U), and so forth.
While toilet is not listed in its own right, toilet paper is listed as non-U compared to lavatory paper (U), implying therefore that lavatory was the ‘polaite’ word for the bog.
One of Ross’s sources was Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love. The professor consulted la Mitford about her language in that book, but she decided to have a jolly jape about the whole thing, which resulted in her rejoinder-as-essay titled The English Aristocracy for the left-leaning-intello-snob magazine Encounter.
Here’s a telling contrast. The Prof started his article thus:
‘Today, in 1956, the English class system is essentially tripartite—there exist an upper, a middle, and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is marked off from the others.’
If one manages to pass over the wording ‘a lower class’ without choking on a pheasant bone, and then not stumble on the Anglocentric ‘English’, the Prof’s thesis was that members of the upper class had only language to distinguish them from—and, let’s admit it, elevate them above—(the) hoi polloi3. For, as Ross pontificated, they were ‘not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class’.
At this distance, it seems impossible to say how in earnest the Prof was; to me, some of his article reads like someone gloriously extracting the Michael at the expense of the Finns and everyone else. That impression is only reinforced by the knowledge that Nancy Mitford considered him U. However, a Wikipedia list of his publications shows a learned philologist, so one has to take what he wrote at face value.
Which is what la Mitford did, when she began her riposte with…
‘The English aristocracy may seem to be on the verge of decadence, but it is the only real aristocracy left in the world today’.
The touchpaper of linguistic insecurity had been lit, and it blazed [What is ‘it’? The touchpaper or linguistic insecurity? Please review this rather far-fetched phrase. Ed.] fiercely for at least a couple of years, leading to the publication in 1956 of the Prof’s (simplified and condensed) paper, la Mitford’s rejoinder, and contributions from that ur-snob Evelyn Waugh, among others, in a slender volume called Noblesse Oblige. To cash in on the furore that had been sparked off, the title was changed to ‘U and non-U’ with the subtitle ‘An essay in sociological linguistics’. The embers of the issue burned on for years.
Nowadays, as British English arguably4 morphs into a Calibanish second cousin of American (when visiting Buck House as a member of the public a few years back, a young whippersnapper asked us ‘to form a line’ – I ask you! I remonstrated, and reminded him that in this country we speak of queues, but that laddie was not for learning. And now it is obligatory if you are under 120, to talk of ‘shtructures’ and ‘orcheshstras’ and ‘shtreets’ – need I go on?) it takes an effort of the imagination to think how different things were in the constipated Britain – well, England, actually – of the mid-1950s.
The Second World War had supposedly effaced the rigid pre-war class distinctions and Labour had swept to power (excuse the cliché) in 1945. The NHS had been created, fair enough, but underneath nothing much had changed, and a Conservative government had been returned to power in 1951.
Toffs were still toffs, the working classes generally knew their place and were definitely not upwardly mobile; to wear a hat of some kind outside the house was a virtual obligation for men as well as women; Britain still clung to an Empire on which the sun was rapidly setting; and possibly a third of the British population believed that the Queen had been appointed by God.
At home my mother drank a vile coffee-substitute confection called Camp, a hangover I suspect from her time as a Frontier Corps wife in the dying days of the Raj; olive oil came in tiny phials bought at great expense from the chemist to loosen childish ear wax; on winter outings my brother and I were cocooned like mini-me Jack Hawkinses in military-style dufflecoats whose toggles constantly frustrated childish hands, and, when the cold really bit, we were topped off with balaclava helmets; our father schooled us laboriously and aspirationally in how to say ‘How do you do!’ and shake hands with adults we were introduced to; and everyone leapt to attention when the national anthem was played in cinemas at the start of the programme.
In such a world, to get on in most walks of like, you had to enounce your thoughts in an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent (but not a refained and therefore put-on one). Social climbers who had a gift for mimicry could train themselves to talk like the clipped-most BBC announcer or the orotund-most Shakespearean actor. But such social tightrope-walking was perilous. Like the German spies in Holland who, anecdotally, were unmasked [Can you be ‘anecdotally unmasked’? Ed.] by not being able to pronounce Scheveningen5 like a true Netherlander, one lexical slip could send your social ambitions straight down the toilet. Which is where we came in.
You might sound like a toff, but was your vocabulary U?
The next sheet of this blog will be about the phrase toilet talk and loo.
Incidentally, the first uses of lavatory to mean either room or receptacle are quite close to those for toilet (1874/1886, i.e. earlier for the room, but later for the receptacle 1894 for toilet vs 1903 for lavatory), which raises the question of when it became U in the first place, and why.
I’ve been editing far too many academic articles and monographs of late…that’s my excuse for the endnotes, anyway.
i In the Grimms’ original, the mirror is a diminutive Spieglein, which is hard to match: mirrorlet? I don’t think so. »Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand,
Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?«
so antwortete der Spiegel:
»Frau Königin, Ihr seid die Schönste im Land.«
ii It is easy to forget that German was well placed to become the universal lingua franca in the nineteenth century, above all because of its scientific and scholarly credentials. This seems to have been the case in Finland, as witnessed by the aforementioned journal, whose title is in German, as is, naturally enough, the information about it. However, Ross’s article is in English, and the one, also in English, preceding it in the journal, mentions how English was taking over in Finland in scholarly circles.
iii Pray don’t tell me that hoi means ‘the’ in Greek, and therefore ‘the’ in English is redundant. I know already what it means. But English is not Greek, just as Hungarian is not Mandarin, nor Slovene, Punjabi, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
iv Arguably is such a wonderfully, conveniently weasel word. It would like to sound as if it means ‘there are objective arguments to support what I am about to claim’; what it really means, as here, is ‘because I say so’.
v Scheveningen is a suburb of the Hague, where, as a mid-teenager, I spent my first solo European holiday, when my father was working there. It’s a word that does not trip easily of an untutored British tongue, and my dad’s Dutch friends had hours of harmless fun trying to get me to say it properly.