Are you U or are you non-U?


Does the way you speak give away your background in an instant? Do you pop to the loo or go to the toilet? Do you live in a house or a home? Do you enjoy a sweet or pudding and do you eat it after dinner or tea? In this world of binary class linguistics, you are, quite simply, either upper class or not. So, are you U or are you non-U?

Nancy Mitford is a writer who both understood England’s aristocracy and managed, in gilded, witty prose, to lampoon it. Her upbringing and observations ensured she could follow the finely delineated class divisions separating the truly upper class from those who are merely wealthy, fashionable or powerful. She understood you could be a billionaire, film star or even the Prime Minister and remain decidedly non-U.

Nancy Mitford

In 1954, Nancy Mitford published an article entitled ‘The English Aristocracy’ in the magazine Encounter. The piece caused a storm, elicited responses and attracted the attention of publishers. The result was Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy – a 1956 collection of articles and contributions.

People instantly latched on to the idea that: “it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished (since they are neither cleaner, richer nor better-educated than anybody else)”. You might not quite agree with the second half of her statement, but the idea of aristocratic shibboleths seized the imagination.

The list covers many aspects of life from food (eating vegetables (which is U) or greens (non-U)) to greetings (how d’you do versus pleased to meet you). Nancy rather unkindly notes that the upper class have dinner in the evening, whilst: “non-U speakers (also U-children and U-dogs) have their dinner in the middle of the day”.

Some of the entries date the piece quite accurately – would anyone now bother to refer to a telegram let alone be concerned whether it was to be referred to by this name (non-U) or by the snappier ‘wire’ of the upper class? Nancy also seems to have lost the battle over time on the adjective for our countrymen north of the border – are they Scotch (U) or Scottish (non-U)?

Noblesse Oblige by Nancy Mitford and friends

In ‘The English Aristocracy’ Nancy concerned herself with more than just observations on how different groups choose different words to express the same idea. She noted that the upper class would be different in their addresses and quotes Professor Ross’s explanation:

“the ideal U-address is PQR where P is a place-name, Q a describer, and R the name of a county, as ‘Shirwell Hall, Salop’”, before going on to disagree with Professor Ross that the upper class would ever use crass abbreviations for the name of a county. As Nancy notes, “any sign of undue haste, in fact, is apt to be non-U, and I go so far as preferring, except for business letters, not to use air mail”.

They would be different in accent (although, how many people still pronounce girl to rhyme with hell?), different in how they viewed money (effort, for the upper class, is, according to Nancy, unrelated to money), what they did in their leisure time and where they preferred to spend time (in the country, unlike French nobles, the English upper class have never really taken to London).

Much has changed in the five decades since the publication of Noblesse Oblige. Some things, however, stay the same – the Queen is still, well, the Queen. The public are as entranced by the birth of a prince as they were in 1948 (for Charles) and 1982 (for William). The House of Lords is still the second chamber of the legislature and, although most of the hereditary peers have been removed, 92 still sit there purely by right of birth.

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