Nancy Mitford and U vs Non-U Speech

Nancy Mitford calling to say you sound like a pleb. [Via]

Obviously, I think that etiquette and manners today has nothing to do with wealth or social class- manners are for everyone! Historically, however, the rise of etiquette books in the Victorian period had a lot to do with the growing middle class and their desire to act like the upper classes. So someone had to teach them how to act. But then the rich caught onto this and constantly changed the rules to throw the middle classes off. Nice, huh? The moral of the story, is that there was (is?) a way to tell social class, regardless of money or education.

In the 1950s, Nancy Mitford (of the endlessly fascinating Mitford sisters), borrowed an idea from British linguist Alan S. C. Ross about U vs non-U vocabulary and wrote a very popular essay about it, “The English Aristocracy,” in which she gave a list of words that were Upper Class (U) and their non-U (not Upper Class) counterparts. She argues that with the Upper Classes in Britain no longer being necessarily richer or better educated than anyone else, their language was the only thing left to distinguish them as Upper Class/aristocratic.

A selection:

A Nice House
Lunch then Dinner
A Lovely Home
Pass on
Settee or Couch
Dinner then Supper (except U-children and U-dogs also have these meals!) [ed. this is my fave]








Interestingly, Emily Post had her own list of “U vs Non-U” vocabulary in 1920 (30 years before Nancy Mitford’s famous essay). Some of Emily’s choices:

At our house we go to bed early (or get up)
Beautiful house—or place
Went to
Gave him a dinner
Had something to drink
In our residence we retire early (or arise)
Elegant home
Tendered him a banquet
Partook of liquid refreshment
Perform ablutions






Perhaps you will notice a pattern in both the Mitford and Post lists- a large portion of the “non-U” word choices are pretentious and overly wordy. Mitford actually says that the “non-U” speakers are mostly among the middle class- the lower classes tend to use the same words as the U speakers. The reason for this is that the lower and upper classes were pretty comfortable with their station and it was only the middle classes that were striving to “better themselves” by using fancy words that they thought sounded upper class.

Now, Mitford’s essay wasn’t completely accepted as truth, even at the time. Evelyn Waugh wrote a rebuttal essay that was published in Noblesse Oblige: a book containing Mitford’s essay, the original article by Ross, Waugh’s rebuttal, and other related essays. Waugh argues that these “U” and “Non-U” differences don’t actually exist as language is constantly in a state of flux and is also regional and family specific.

Today, especially in America, I don’t think you can pick out any words as being specifically upper vs middle class (unless you are the type of person to see entire regions as more lower class than the region you live in!), our culture is too homogenized for that, and it seems that differences are more regional and generational.  Though in 1983, Paul Fussell argued that America does have a class system in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. His benchmarks for upper, middle, and lower class were: the upper class says “Grandpa died,” the middle class says “Grandpa passed away,” and the lower class says “Grandpa went to Jesus.”

However, I think the point about pretension vs being comfortable with yourself absolutely does exist, and for that reason, Emily Post’s list seems to hold up pretty well. Pretension is sort of rude because it is extreeeemely annoying- we all know someone who uses “myself” instead of “me” (incorrectly) and other big words that they don’t seem to know the meaning of, or they just talk in a roundabout manner of “needing to equip themselves with the necessary instruments of learning” instead of “buying school supplies.” This kind of thing makes everyone uncomfortable, and as we all know, causing discomfort in others is one of the hallmarks of rudeness.

What say you? Is pretension rude? Are there any words or phrases that you would argue are definitively class-based? Are middle class people in Britain really trying to act working class? Tell me in the comments!!


16 thoughts on “Nancy Mitford and U vs Non-U Speech

  1. “expecting” instead of “pregnant” “utilize” instead of “use” “anticipate” instead of “expect” “town home” instead of “townhouse”

    • Negative, mother-lover. The fancy-sounding words were used by the great unwashed to pretend that they were well-heeled, owned minimum three pots to piss in, and didn’t just eat dog chops for their dinner. By contrast
      their lords and masters, trying to impress none, called a spade a spade.

  2. Another example: my pretentious Mother-in-law (who uses all the non-u examples given here and puts milk in first) insists on calling a glass a “goblet”. She also call chocolate bars “treats”, says “basin” instead of sink, and (in a complete coincidence in no way related to her lower class roots) is obnoxious, overbearing and smug beyond tolerance.

    • She also insists that the gardener come to the back door to be paid when he’s finished (in a three bed bungalow!) and uses paper napkins instead of linen (which she calls serviettes).

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    • Personally, I would call it a winter garden. I find sunroom sounds awfully American. And conservatory, to my ears, sounds awfully non-U… Again, an unnecessarily fulsome, Latinising word.

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