Pardon? That's practically a swear word

It's almost 60 years since Nancy Mitford caused a furore with her definition of 'U' and 'non-U' language. But even today, many words betray our class...
I’ve been asked to write a long article on the English aristocracy,’ wrote Nancy Mitford in 1955. ‘Can’t quite decide, but if I do, it will contain volleys of teases.’

That essay, which brought the terms ‘U’ (upper class) and ‘non-U’ into the British consciousness, sparked a public debate that surprised even the mischievous Nancy. The writers Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene weighed in, it stirred up passions at the Cambridge Union and it was satirised by John Betjeman, in the poem that begins, ‘Phone for the fish knives, Norman.’

Nancy quoted from an academic paper on English usage by the linguist Professor Alan Ross – who coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ – and added some of her own. Anything dainty or derived from French (serviette, toilet, pardon?) she decreed non-U, spoken by aspirational people anxious to appear naice and refained. U-speakers, on the other hand, use direct language; napkin, lavatory, what?

‘Silence,’ Nancy adds, ‘is the only possible U-response to many embarrassing modern situations: the ejaculation of “cheers” before drinking, for example, or “it was so nice seeing you” after saying goodbye.’

But far from it being a mere ‘volley of teases’, Nancy ‘believed every single word of it’, according to her biographer, Selina Hastings.

‘I think it mattered a great deal to her – class mattered a great deal, and deportment. She was very funny about it, very witty; it was a tease in that way,’ says Hastings.

Sixty years later, Princes William and Harry often speak in a markedly informal manner (witness Harry’s recent ‘Well done, mate’ to Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton), and William’s marriage to a nice middleclass girl is proof – so some analysts would have us believe – that class divisions have been eroded.

How Nancy would have shrieked at that notion.

UnonU-Dec19-03-590Left: Jilly Cooper. Right: Thomas Blaikie
Jilly Cooper – who skewered social attitudes brilliantly with her 1979 manual Class – recalls overhearing her daughter Emily declaring, ‘Mummy says pardon is a much worse word than f***.’

‘Isn’t that dreadful!’ she laughs. ‘But it [pardon] is the one that still seems to grate now; that and toilet.’

Some of Nancy Mitford’s 1955 class-indicator words, of course, are now outdated (such as the U terms chimneypiece and looking-glass, compared to the non-U mantelpiece and mirror). Now, their usage is more to do with age than class.

‘My generation would call glasses spectacles,’ says Mary S Lovell, who has written a biography of the Mitford sisters, ‘but I don’t think younger people would. I would say telephone, but I dare say my grandchildren would call it their phone.

Bye-bye does irritate – I normally say goodbye – but I wouldn’t be mortally offended if someone said byebye,’ she adds. ‘And while cheers was still naff in some circles in the 1970s, it remains so only amongst the older generation today. I certainly don’t think people get upset about it now in the way they did when I was growing up.’

Other non-U bugbears, however, retain their potency. Recall the glee with which the (gleefully snobby) press leapt on reports that Carole Middleton had used non-U language at Buckingham Palace, around the time Kate and William split up. ‘Was it “Toiletgate” that done for Kate?’ asked one headline.

‘Nancy Mitford would be turning in her grave at how universal the non-U word toilet has become,’ says Selina Hastings; ‘that and serviette, I think.’


But the picture today is complicated. Nancy’s U indicators separated the upper class from everyone else; some of today’s shibboleths separate the upper middles from the middle middles or the lower middle from the working class.

‘Nana’ – as Jilly Cooper pointed out in Class – is ‘a big dog in Peter Pan’ to the upper middles and above. Today, however, ‘you hear a lot of middle-class people talking about their “nan”’, says The Lady’s etiquette expert, Thomas Blaikie. ‘It is something that is becoming more ubiquitous – more people are saying nan, like they’re saying toilet.’

Jilly, too, believes that toilet is now ‘moving upwards’. ‘I’ve come across a lot of quite grand people who say it,’ she says. ‘Because everybody’s poor now, no one can afford to send their children to boarding school, so they learn it at school and it is very difficult to explain why you shouldn’t say it at home.’

These words might have become almost universal today, but utter them around a traditional U-speaker and it will set off their class radar — as will a host of other non-U indicators.

Meal is ‘a horrible word’, says Thomas Blaikie. ‘My father used to say that meal was for the chickens.’

Nancy, says Selina Hastings, ‘would have hated it – you had breakfast, luncheon and dinner. A meal, she would have said, is very common.’

And everyone has their own idea of what’s common or naff.


‘I think dress code is a dreadful expression,’ says Jilly Cooper, who also dislikes sibling, partner – and fiancé. ‘But I’m so middle class myself that I must say lots of things that irritate other people!’

Thomas Blaikie doesn’t mind fiancé – ‘which would at one time have seemed very lower middle class’ – but isn’t keen on the expression 24/7 or saying bless as a response to someone’s eccentricities, ‘although they’re probably not strictly non-U’.

Although Edwardian pronunciation – lorst and gorn, for instance – largely died out with the late Mitford girls’ generation, saying As-COT instead of Asc’t still immediately identifies the speaker as non-U, as do euphemisms.

‘People say, “It’s so sad about Leo’s [her late husband’s] passing”, as if he were playing rugby,’ says Jilly Cooper, ‘and “I’m sorry for your loss”, as if the dog’s gone off across the valley.’

But she stresses that ‘it truly doesn’t matter a stuff if anybody says these words; it’s just a way of placing people, you know – like if somebody’s got red hair’.

It’s a confusing picture nowadays. Old Etonians may speak Estuary English, but are unlikely to ask if you’d like to go out for a meal. ‘Even I will say the word toilet to fit in,’ admits Thomas Blaikie, ‘then if you meet the right person, you can have a good giggle about the language people use – but it’s never clear to what extent it’s just a silly game.’

Perhaps the best line to take is that of the socialite Maudie Littlehampton, creation of the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster: ‘To hell with Nancy Mitford! What I always say is, if it’s me, it’s U!’

Otherwise, there’s always the sneaking suspicion: surely it’s rather non-U to care?


A simple guide to the words that will reveal your class (use with caution)

U AND NON-U (1955)
Cheers: silence is the only possible U-response.
Dinner: U-speakers eat luncheon in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening; non-U-speakers (and U-dogs and U-children) have their dinner in the middle of the day and tea in the evening.
Glasses is non-U for U spectacles.
Horse-riding is non-U for U riding.
Lounge is non-U for U sitting room or drawing room.
Mantelpiece is non-U for U chimneypiece.
Mirror is non-U for U looking-glass.
Pardon? is non-U for U what? – or silence.
Perfume is non-U for U scent.
Pleased to meet you is non-U for U How d’you do.
Serviette is non-U for U napkin.
Sweet is non-U for U pudding.
Toilet paper is non-U for U lavatory paper.
Any sign of undue haste, such as sending letters by airmail, and abbreviations – phone, for instance – are non-U.

Many of the non-U terms in Nancy’s 1955 list – horse-riding, lounge, pardon?, pleased to meet you, serviette, sweet, toilet – remain relevant, to which can be added:
Cleaner is non-U for U daily, whether employed five days a week or once a fortnight.
Horse-racing is non-U and takes place at As-COT. U-speakers go racing at Asc’t.
Mansion: gruesome non-U word used by tabloid hacks and the Labour Party – ‘mansion tax’; U-speakers say house. Non-U-speakers also talk about property and their home.
Meal: non-U-speakers ‘go out for a meal’; U-speakers have lunch, dinner or supper.
Nana is non-U for U granny. For U-speakers, Nana, says Jilly Cooper, is the dog in Peter Pan.
Smart is U for non-U posh – unless used jokingly; a posh coffee’ (cappuccino).
Euphemisms remain terribly non-U. ‘I’m sorry to hear about his passing’ for U: ‘My father has died.’ Non-Uspeakers talk about expecting a baby’; U-speakers say ‘She’s pregnant’.