TOM UTLEY: It's only middle class who care about 'posh' vocabulary
TOM UTLEY: I wince at the word ‘toilet’ – but then it’s only us middle class who truly care about ‘posh’ vocabulary
My late grandmother, one of the last of the Victorians and a crashing snob, used to say that it was most frightfully common, my dear, to use the word ‘loo’. As far as she was concerned, the only acceptable term was ‘lavatory’.
Heaven knows, then, what she would have made of this week’s survey by Perspectus Global, a firm describing itself as an ‘insights agency’ (search me), which finds that calling it the loo is one of the top 40 signs considered by Britons to indicate that a person is ‘genuinely posh’.
As if this wouldn’t horrify her enough, I dread to think how the old lady would have reacted had she lived to hear my own sons, her great-grandchildren, referring habitually to the facility in question as the ‘toilet’.
This was a word she considered so irredeemably lower-class that it would never have crossed her mind that any descendant of hers would be capable of uttering it.
My late grandmother, used to say that it was most frightfully common, my dear, to use the word ‘loo’. As far as she was concerned, the only acceptable term was ‘lavatory’ (stock image)
But I am in no position to throw stones. Brought up as I was, I confess that at first it jarred with me when our boys started using that controversial word for the smallest room (another expression my grandmother would never have used), in place of the alternative euphemisms supposedly favoured by the upper crust.
At first I tried — and failed — to negotiate a compromise, telling the boys that they could call it the toilet at school, if that was the accepted word there, but at home it would remain the lavatory or… oh, dear… the loo (sorry, Grandma).
Now that I’m older and wiser, however, it no longer bothers me at all when I hear one of my own flesh and blood announce that he’s off to the toilet, at home or anywhere else.
But I fear that at least a trace of snobbery remains in me, since I can’t quite bring myself to let the word fall from my own lips, except in a mockney accent to mimic my sons.
Yes, I know, I know. Sensible readers will flock to inform me that it’s stupid and even contemptible to give a damn about such matters, let alone to waste a drop of ink by discussing them in print. It couldn’t matter less, they’ll tell me, what word people use for the WC, as long as it’s not gratuitously offensive.
We should judge our fellow human beings by their character and their treatment of others, they’ll say, not by their choice of vocabulary — or indeed any other supposed indicator of social class. And of course they will be absolutely right.
Yet I’d be very surprised if there’s anyone in this country, of my generation and privately educated upbringing, who hasn’t just occasionally suppressed an involuntary wince when somebody calls a sofa a ‘couch’, says ‘serviette’ rather than ‘napkin’ — or pronounces the word ‘aitch’ as if it has an H in front of it (as in ‘Haitch MRC’). It’s the same when it comes to clothes or interior decor.
How many of my background — be honest — can resist thinking, ‘Oh, dear, how naff’ when we see the latest outfit worn by, say, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen or pictures of Donald Trump’s flat at the top of Trump Tower?
Is it a mark of ‘genuine poshness’ to have shelves of books? Mitford’s character Uncle Matthew (pictured) springs to mind. If I remember The Pursuit Of Love correctly, he read only one book
It’s not as if my own family ever had the slightest legitimate claim to be thought grand. Take that maternal grandmother, born in 1899, who shuddered at the word loo.
Though she liked to play the grande dame — and claimed a remote kinship with the Marquess of Ormonde — she was in fact the ineffably middle-class daughter of a bank manager, and married to a middle-class journalist.
That didn’t stop her from reacting with horror when her beloved younger daughter, my mother, fell in love with another journalist, instead of the Lord Right she’d had in mind for her.
She was appalled not only because my father was blind, and without any inherited money or aristocratic connections.
Worse still, in her book, he had a trace of a Liverpool accent — pronouncing the word ‘hanging’, for example, with two hard Gs — though this was later to be drummed out of him by my mother.
My grandmother wasn’t pleased, either, when I married Mrs U, who was similarly bereft of titles and ancestral acres. I vividly remember her telling me, trying to be nice: ‘Well, at least she sounds chateau-bottled.’
Playing her own game, I replied: ‘Grandma, what a frightfully common expression!’ One up to me, I thought.
So, no, we Utleys aren’t by any means posh. But then isn’t it a truism that the sort of petty snobbery I’ve been describing is a distinctively middle-class vice?
Genuine toffs are too grand and assured of their status to care. Even the undeniably posh Nancy Mitford, high priestess of the U and Non-U, wrote about class indicators chiefly for laughs, with more than a hint of disdain for the Hyacinth Buckets of this world, who worry about these things.
Meanwhile, proud members of the working class find fretting about status plain ridiculous. Indeed, I suspect it’s those of us who are caught in the middle who read this week’s survey with the greatest interest. So permit me an observation or two on its findings.
Is it really a mark of ‘genuine poshness’ to have shelves full of books (No 28 on the list)? I would have thought this more an indication that the shelf-owner enjoys reading — an activity with which the British aristocracy, with notable exceptions, has never been much associated.
Mitford’s character Uncle Matthew springs to mind. If I remember The Pursuit Of Love correctly (I’ve seen only the first instalment of the new BBC adaptation, which has got so many people talking about class), he read only one book.
That was Jack London’s White Fang, which he liked so much that he never read another.
Again, is it posh to call dinner ‘supper’ (No 13)? As I understand it, the rule is that supper and dinner are different meals. If it’s just sausages and mash for the family, it’s supper.
Again, is it posh to call dinner ‘supper’? As I understand it, the rule is that supper and dinner are different meals. If it’s just sausages and mash for the family, it’s supper (stock image)
If it’s a more formal affair, with at least three courses and guests, then it’s dinner. Oh, and upper-class children and dogs have their dinner at midday, while upper-class adults have it in the evening (and never before 8pm).
I reckon other items on the list also need revising. For instance, is ‘having a double-barrelled name’ (No 32) still a mark of poshness? These days, isn’t this far more likely to suggest either that your mum is a feminist or that your parents are unmarried — or both?
And is it really true that posh people ‘never discuss money’ (No 6)? I’ve come across impoverished aristocrats, in my time, who think and talk about little else.
As for omissions from the list, how long before voting Labour is seen as exclusively upper class — a test of poshness I would fail — or at least having children who join demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, which seem increasingly to be thronged by the pampered offspring of toffs?
Let’s face it, the truth is that fashions change — and class indicators along with them. Indeed, in the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen many words once considered excruciatingly naff adopted and accepted by the grandest in the land.
For example, I was brought up to believe it was common to say ‘phone’, ‘radio’, ‘bike’ or ‘stereo’ — while proper toffs would never say ‘mantelpiece’ or ‘mirror’.
The ‘correct’ words, I was taught, were ‘telephone’, ‘wireless’, ‘bicycle’ and ‘gramophone’, while a mantelpiece was a chimneypiece, and a mirror a looking-glass.
But when was the last time you heard anyone under 50 using the words considered de rigueur by the likes of Nancy Mitford?
Never mind the loo. Before we know it, we’ll hear even the most inveterate of middle-class snobs calling it the toilet, without a blush. And, all right, this will probably be a less angst-ridden country for that.
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