Friday, 19 October 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 19 October

Do you sit on the ‘settee’ in your ‘lounge’? Thomas Blaikie advises on today’s U and non-U expressions

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas, I'm sure I heard the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire saying 'toilet' on TV. All these years I've been remembering to say 'lavatory'. The next thing, she'll be referring to her 'lounge.' If you're mad, I'm incandescent. PS My friend Audrey says that it wasn't Debo, it was her sister, Jessica Mitford.
Kitty Sonning, Moreton-in-Marsh

Dear Kitty,
By rights I should be telling you
not to be silly.

There's a rather delicious coincidence here. Deborah Devonshire's cousin is the granddaughter of the founder of The Lady. It was her sister, Nancy Mitford, who foisted U and non-U upon us in her essay of 1954, The English Aristocracy. In brief, non-U (ie, not upper class) supposedly use dainty, fancifi ed expressions that betray social insecurity. They say 'pardon' and 'serviette' and 'settee'. U, on the other hand, couldn't give a damn, and use plain, traditional terms: 'what?' 'napkin' and 'sofa'. 'Toilet' is definitely non-U, I'm afraid. What would Nancy have said, if Debo really did utter 'toilet' on TV?

One small sigh of relief: it wasn't Debo. It was Jessica – in BBC Four's documentary programme Health Before The NHS. It must have been old footage, for Jessica died in 1996.

You might say, 'What do you expect? She ran away and turned Commie.' But a helpful friend has pointed out that Stalin never said 'toilet' – not even in Russian.

We should have grown out of U and non-U by now. But we haven't. I suspect, dear readers, that quite a number of you are all too aware that some people say 'Nice to meet you', while others say, 'How do you do?'. Some say 'dessert' or 'sweet' and others say 'pudding'.

Depressingly or not, 60 years on U and non-U is astonishingly up to date. But some of it Nancy got barkingly wrong from the start; she took against all words apparently derived from French, so poor old perfectly harmless 'mirror' was out; you'd got to say 'looking glass.' On the same basis she outlawed 'mantelpiece' in favour of 'chimneypiece'.

What's more, when Nancy's pre-war novels were re-issued in the late 1950s, she confessed to Evelyn Waugh that she'd had to go through them frantically crossing out all the mirrors and mantelpieces.

Apart from the fact that, judged purely as a word, 'serviette' is frightful, is it very bad to care that people say 'toilet'? As always, our feelings about class are never straightforward. In this country, the sovereign can be pronounced middle class. You can be penniless, but top drawer. Posh boys teach themselves unposh estuary English, but would never say 'couch'. Our class preoccupation is contradictory and hedged round with irony. In other countries they're more viciously snobbish.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... Being a pig

Unfortunately, a former rugby player, George Dalmon, 26, and his friend Andy Miles have been banned for life from GOBi, a Mongolian all-you-can-eat buffet-type restaurant in Brighton. Apparently they ate the entire buffet. Nothing left for other customers.

Buffet manners come to mind. Some people are buffet menaces. Whether in a private home, the workplace or a paying eatery, they linger savagely over the selection, keeping others away, then totter off, their plates heaped with violently clashing menu choices.

I'm all in favour of a healthy appetite. Nothing worse than anaemic guests who hardly touch a thing. But buffet guzzlers deprive others of their fair share. Also, we don't want to be too hideously exposed to the rawness of the basic function: the human being refuelling.

Perhaps these people suffer from buffet anxiety. They think there will be none left. They must grab while they can. You could try to soothe them: 'Don't worry. I'm sure there will be plenty of coleslaw left if you want some more later.' If you tend to pigginess yourself, the modestly loaded plate, then a discreet return glide to the buffet table, more than once even, is the best blind.

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