In 1956 Nancy Mitford, herself a daughter of an English baron, wrote a wonderfully amusing essay "The English Aristocracy." As part of this discourse, she told us that "Most of the peers share the education, usage and point of view of a vast middle class, but the upper middle class does not, in its turn, merge imperceptibly into the middle class. There is a very definite border line, easily recognizable by hundreds of small but significant landmarks."
One of these landmarks, she said, was language, which was either U (upper class) or non-U. If one used the wrong word, he or she was immediately revealed as a member of the lower orders.
Non-U: cycle; U: bike
Non-U: greens; U: vegetables
Non-U: wealthy; U: rich
Mitford used and quoted the research of Professor Alan S. Ross of Birmingham University. Professor Ross listed many more U and non-U terms: "Counterpane, bedspread, coverlet. Of these three synonyms, I think that the first is U, the second obsolete, the third non-U
Home: non-U. They've a lovely home/U-They've a very nice house.
Mention: If you don't mind my mentioning it is non-U.
The publication of this essay provoked a storm in England, and, as a result, it was published along with some comments on it in a little volume titled "Noblesse Oblige." While this book includes an amusing essay by Evelyn Waugh, the introduction by Russell Lynes is most pertinent to those of us who live in the U.S. For the delectation of Americans, Lynes quoted Emily Post, our arbiter of manners, as pronouncing that certain words and phrases are "ones to look out for" and indeed are "unintentional vulgarities." Others are "In very bad taste" Some of these:
No: I desire to purchase Yes: I would like to buy
No: I presume Yes: I suppose
No: Mansion Yes: Big house
No: Elegant home Yes: Beautiful house or place
No: Drapes Yes: Curtains
Post wrote: "In best - meaning most distinguished - society no one arises, or retires, or resides in a residence.
One gets up, takes a bath, goes to bed and lives in a house."
This little column can only give a taste of the delicious flavor of "Noblesse Oblige." Of course much of it is outdated and unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but Rosie was lucky enough to find a copy at the Richmond Public Library. If you can find one, by all means read and enjoy the humor and preciousness of it.Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220), fax (359-9089) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org