This writer, who calls the second part of dinner “afters” and proposes to go on doing so, is faced with a new menace. All his life the genteel alternative has been “sweet” or “dessert”: now, suddenly, it is “pudding.” Solid or fluid, wet or dry, pancake, pastry, blancmange or rhubarb, “pudding” is to be its name. “Pudding” is “U.”

So is “vegetables,” but “greens” is non-U. Having “luncheon” is U, but “dinner”—except at night—is non-U. Saying “goodbye” is U, “bye-bye” non-U. Putting the milk in the tea is U, the tea in the milk non-U. To telephone from one’s house is U, ’phoning from home non-U.

“U” stands for Upper-Class, “non-U” non-Upper-Class is phraseology and etiquette. The terms were first used by Professor Alan Ross, of Birmingham University in an article on “Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English” which was reprinted (having first appeared in a scholarly Finnish, paper) in Encounter. They were popularized by The Observer and the Sunday Express, the leading agent and authority being Miss Nancy Mitford, the novelist.

What are the arbiters? By whose decree, what protocol or final judgment, is a word or a gimmick U or otherwise? One line of approach is suggested by a recent headline in the Evening Standard: GULLS EGGS, STRAWBERRIES HURLED AT PARTY: A DEBUTANT IS HIT IN THE EYE. Debutants are U; undoubtedly this was a U-party. The authentic U-touch, however, seems to be the hurling of gulls’ eggs and strawberries. Hurling most things is just vulgar: BLACK PUDDINGS, KIPPERS HURLED AT PARTY: PLASTERER HIT IN THE EYE would be non-U from start to finish.

Miss Mitford told Picture Post in an interview published on May 12th that “money has nothing to do with being U,” but that is incomplete and therefore misleading. It is clear enough that people may be rich (“wealthy” is non-U) and not be U (the Grace Kelly wedding was “very non-U,” she said); it is equally clear, however, that nobody can be poor and U at the same time. Think of the cost in gulls’ eggs and strawberries.

The real clue lies in the fact that, however silly and pointless the U-craze sounds, it isn’t a craze and it isn’t pointless. The speech and manners of die upper class are emblems as carefully worked and as proudly displayed as their heraldic crests. The hereditary rich learn them in the nursery and the public school (Miss Mitford says she learned U from her father, Lord Redesdale). Not all the rich have it that way, however; there are always the recruits, the successful speculators and the potato-crisp millionaires.

The best, most comprehensive beginners’ book of U is at least as old as Miss Mitford. “Manners and Rules of Good Society, by a Member of the Aristocracy,” came out early in this century, and is still being reprinted. The chapter-headings tell their own tale: Introductions, Paying Calls, Precedency, Garden-Parties, Shaking Hands, Luncheons and 41 others. Here you find U-pronundation: Blythe to be said Bly, Kerr Kar, Heathcote Hethcut and Montgomery Mungummery. As the author says in his preface:

“A solecism may be perhaps in itself but a trifling matter, but in the eyes of society at large it assumes proportions of a magnified aspect, and reflects most disadvantageously upon the one by whom it is committed; the direct inference being, that to be guilty of a solecism argues the offender to be unused to society, and consequently not on an equal footing with it.”

Thus, some people talk to establish their meaning and others to establish their status. That is why some modes of speech are thought better than others. Cockney, Liverpool and Newcastle dialects are not really looked-down on for philological reasons (some expressions like “gorn” and “orf,” are standard Cockney, and are also standard upper-class); the real point is that they are working-class idioms.

Does that explain the U-cult? Of itself, no. But there are lots of people who don’t belong to the upper section but like others to think they do. Frank Richards’s schoolboy stories, which were nine-tenths snobbery, made great fun of the fat boy’s boast of “Bunter Court,” “an establishment that, seen close at hand, diminished to a semi-detached villa in Surrey.” And that is very near an all-too-common truth. Fancy calling a three-foot-wide passage “the hall!” Many people do. Fancy calling 12 feet square of living space “the lounge”—but they do.

The prop of the myth of “middle-class life” is its imitation of upper-class life. Not surprisingly, the upper class does not like it. The sham Tudor villas, the grained front doors, the imitation leather and the rest, are sneered at. Rather unfair of the upper class, because they can afford the real things, of course. Nevertheless, they are in fact expressing resentment of the infringement of their patents. “ U ” is for upper-class; its antithesis, “non-U,” means—as the Picture Post article put it— “dreadfully middle-class.”

“Linguistic class-indicators” therefore are continually changing, and Miss Mitford and Professor Ross have virtually sponsored a new guide to them. The sad thing is that the eager suburbs have already lapped up a great deal of it so as to keep abreast in being O.K. socially. It is not the U-cult that is foolish—propertied classes seek every means to distinguish themselves from the rest—but the existence of the economic division which produces such things.

In the last ten years the people who are pleased to call themselves “middle-class’’—teachers, parsons, civil servants and all—have pleaded their poverty perhaps more strongly than anyone; that is, they have demonstrated for all to see that their problems and interests are just the same as those of all the others who have to go to work for a living. And at just the same time, they have turned the passage into the hall, the settee into the sofa, Ralph into Rafe and the lavatory into the toilet in the hope that nobody will suspect the truth.

The upper class have at least one unassailable comeback. To try to be U is . . . definitely non-U.


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