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 Melonie
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
defi nitely 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

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 Thomas.
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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