Nancy Mitford coined the phrase 'U and Non-U' - referring to upper-class and non-upper-class words - in an article in Encounter in 1955, and although some of her class-indicator words are now outdated, the principle remains. Some of the shibboleths may have changed, but there are still plenty of them, and we still judge your class on whether, for example, you call the midday meal 'lunch' or 'dinner'.
Mitford's simple binary model is not, however, quite subtle enough for my purposes: some shibboleths may simply separate the upper class from the rest, but others more specifically separate the working class from the lower-middle, or the middle-middle from the upper-middle. In a few cases, working-class and upper-class usage is remarkably similar, and differs significantly from the classes in between.
The Seven Deadly Sins
There are, however, seven words that the English uppers and upper-middles regard as infallible shibboleths. Utter any one of these 'seven deadly sins' in the presence of these higher classes, and their on-board class-radar devices will start bleeping and flashing: you will immediately be demoted to middle-middle class, at best, probably
lower - and in some cases automatically classified as working class.
This word is the most notorious pet hate of the upper and upper-middle classes. Jilly Cooper recalls overhearing her son telling a friend 'Mummy says that "pardon" is a much worse word than "fuck"'. He was quite right: to the uppers and upper-middles, using such an unmistakably lower-class term is worse than swearing. Some even refer to lower-middle-class suburbs as 'Pardonia'. Here is a good class-test you can try: when talking to an English person, deliberately say something too quietly for them to hear you properly. A lower-middle or middle-middle person will say 'Pardon?'; an upper-middle will say 'Sorry?' (or perhaps 'Sorry - what?' or 'What - sorry?'); but an upper-class and a working-class person will both just say 'What?' The working-class person may drop the't' - 'Wha'?' - but this will be the only difference. Some upper-working-class people with middle-class aspirations might say 'pardon', in a misguided attempt to sound 'posh'.
'Toilet' is another word that makes the higher classes flinch - or exchange knowing looks, if it is uttered by a would-be social climber. The correct upper-middle/upper term is 'loo' or 'lavatory' (pronounced lavuhtry, with the accent on the first syllable). 'Bog' is occasionally acceptable, but only if it is said in an obviously ironic-jocular manner, as though in quotes. The working classes all say'toilet', as do most lower-middles and middle-middles, the only difference being the working-class omission of the final't'. (The working classes may also sometimes say 'bog', but without the ironic quotation marks.) Those lower- and middle-middles with pretensions or aspirations, however, may eschew 'toilet' in favour of suburban-genteel euphemisms such as 'gents', 'ladies', 'bathroom', 'powder room', 'facilities' and 'convenience'; or jokey euphemisms such as 'latrines', 'heads' and 'privy' (females tend to use the former, males the latter).
A 'serviette' is what the inhabitants of Pardonia call a napkin. This is another example of a 'genteelism', in this case a misguided attempt to enhance one's status by using a fancy French word rather than a plain old English one. It has been suggested that 'serviette' was taken up by squeamish lower-middles who found 'napkin' a bit too close to 'nappy', and wanted something that sounded a bit more refined. Whatever its origins, 'serviette' is now regarded as irredeemably lower class. Upper-middle and upper-class mothers get very upset when their children learn to say 'serviette' from well-meaning lower-class nannies, and have to be painstakingly retrained to say 'napkin'.
There is nothing wrong with the word 'dinner' in itself: it is only a working-class hallmark if you use it to refer to the midday meal, which should be called 'lunch'. Calling your evening meal 'tea' is also a working-class indicator: the higher echelons call this meal 'dinner' or'supper'. (Technically, a dinner is a somewhat grander meal than a supper: if you are invited to 'supper', this is likely to be an informal family meal, eaten in the kitchen - sometimes this is made explicit, as in 'family supper' or'kitchen supper'. The uppers and upper-middles use the term 'supper' more than the middle- and lower-middles). 'Tea', for the higher classes, is taken at around four o'clock, and consists of tea and cakes or scones (which they pronounce with a short 'o'), and perhaps little sandwiches (pronounced 'sanwidges', not 'sand-witches'). The lower classes call this 'afternoon tea'. All this can pose a few problems for foreign visitors: if you are invited to 'dinner', should you turn up at midday or in the evening? Does 'come for tea' mean four o'clock or seven o'clock? To be safe, you will have to ask what time you are expected. The answer will help you to place your hosts on the social scale.
Or you could ask your hosts what they call their furniture. If an upholstered seat for two or more people is called a settee or a couch, they are no higher than middle-middle. If it is a sofa, they are upper-middle or above. There are occasional exceptions to this rule, which is not quite as accurate a class indicator as 'pardon'. Some younger upper-middles, influenced by American films and television programmes, might say'couch' - although they are unlikely to say 'settee', except as a joke or to annoy their class-anxious parents. If you like, you can amuse yourself by making predictions based on correlations with other class indicators such as those covered later in the chapter on Home Rules. For example: if the item in question is part of a brand-new matching three-piece suite, which also matches the curtains, its owners are likely to call it a settee.
And what do they call the room in which the settee/sofa is to be found? Settees are found in 'lounges' or 'living rooms', sofas in 'sitting rooms' or'drawing rooms'. 'Drawing room' (short for'withdrawing room') used to be the only 'correct' term, but many upper-middles and uppers feel it is bit silly and pretentious to call, say, a small room in an ordinary terraced house the 'drawing room', so 'sitting room' has become acceptable. You may occasionally
hear an upper-middle-class person say 'living room', although this is frowned upon, but only middle-middles and below say'lounge'. This is a particularly useful word for spotting middle-middle social climbers trying to pass as upper-middle: they may have learnt not to say 'pardon' and 'toilet', but they are often not aware that 'lounge' is also a deadly sin.
Like 'dinner', this word is not in itself a class indicator, but it becomes one when misapplied. The upper-middle and upper classes insist that the sweet course at the end of a meal is called the 'pudding' - never the 'sweet', or 'afters', or 'dessert', all of which are declasse, unacceptable words. 'Sweet' can be used freely as an adjective, but as a noun it is piece of confectionary - what the Americans call 'candy' - and nothing else. The course at the end of the meal is always 'pudding', whatever it consists of: a slice of cake is 'pudding', so is a lemon sorbet. Asking: 'Does anyone want a sweet?' at the end of a meal will get you immediately classified as middle-middle or below. 'Afters' will also activate the class-radar and get you demoted. Some American-influenced young upper- middles are starting to say 'dessert', and this is therefore the least offensive of the three - and the least reliable as a class indicator. It can also cause confusion as, to the upper classes, 'dessert' traditionally means a selection of fresh fruit, served right at the end of a dinner, after the pudding, and eaten with a knife and fork.
'Smart' and 'Common' Rules
The 'seven deadly sins' are the most obvious and reliable class indicators, but a number of other terms will also register on our highly sensitive class-radar devices. If you want to 'talk posh', you will have to stop using the term 'posh', for a start: the correct upper-class word is 'smart'. In upper-middle and upper-class circles, 'posh' can only be used ironically, in a jokey tone of voice to show that you know it is a low-class word.
The opposite of'smart' is what everyone from the middle-middles upwards calls 'common' - a snobbish euphemism for'working class'. But beware: using this term too often is a sure sign of middle-middle class-anxiety. Calling things and people 'common' all the time is protesting too much, trying too hard to distance yourself from the lower classes. Only the insecure wear their snobbery on their sleeve in this way. 'Naff' is a better option, as it is a more ambiguous term, which can mean the same as 'common', but can also just mean 'tacky' or 'in bad taste'. It has become a generic, all-purpose expression of disapproval/dislike: teenagers often use 'naff' more or less interchangeably with 'uncool' and 'mainstream', their favourite dire insults.
If they are 'common', these young people will call their parents Mum and Dad; 'smart' children say Mummy and Daddy (some used to say Ma and Pa, but these are now seen as very old-fashioned). When talking about their parents, common children refer to them as 'my Mum' and 'my Dad' (or 'me Mam' and 'me Dad'), while smart children say 'my mother' and 'my father'. These are not infallible indicators, as some higher-class children now say Mum and Dad, and some very young working-class children might say Mummy and Daddy; but if the child is over the age of ten, maybe twelve to be safe, still calling his or her mother Mummy is a fairly reliable higher-class indicator. Grown-ups who still say Mummy and Daddy are almost certainly upper-middle or above.
Mothers who are called Mum carry a 'handbag'; mothers called Mummy just call it a 'bag'. Mums wear 'perfume'; Mummies call it'scent'. Parents called Mum and Dad go 'horseracing'; smart Mummies and Daddies call it'racing'. Common people go to a 'do'; middle-middles might call it a 'function'; smart people just call it a party. 'Refreshments' are served at middle-class 'functions'; the higher echelons' parties just have food and drink.
Lower- and middle-middles eat their food in 'portions'; upper-middles and above have 'helpings'. Common people have a 'starter'; smart people have a 'first course' (although this one is rather less reliable).
Lower- and middle-middles talk about their 'home' or 'property'; upper-middles and above say 'house'. Common people's homes have 'patios'; smart people's houses have 'terraces'. Working-class people say 'indoors' when they mean 'at home' (as in 'I left it indoors' and ”er indoors' meaning 'my wife'). This is by no means an exhaustive list: class pervades every aspect of English life, and you will find yet more verbal class indicators in almost every chapter of this book - as well as dozens of non-verbal class signals.
We are clearly as acutely class-conscious as we have ever been, but in these 'politically correct' times, many of us are increasingly embarrassed about our class-consciousness, and do our best to deny or disguise it. The middle classes are particularly uncomfortable about class, and well-meaning upper-middles are the most squeamish of all. They will go to great lengths to avoid calling anyone or anything 'working class' - resorting to polite euphemisms such as 'low-income groups', 'less privileged', 'ordinary people', 'less educated', 'the man in the street', 'tabloid readers', 'blue collar', 'state school', 'council estate', 'popular' (or sometimes, among themselves, less polite euphemisms such as 'Sharon and Tracey', 'Kevins', 'Essex Man' and 'Mondeo Man').
These over-tactful upper-middles may even try to avoid using the word 'class' at all, carefully talking about someone's 'background' instead - which always makes me imagine the person emerging from either a Lowry street scene or a Gainsborough or Reynolds country-manor portrait, depending on the class to which 'background' is intended to refer. (This is always obvious from the context: 'Well, with that sort of background, you have to make allowances . . .' is Lowry; 'We prefer Saskia and Fiona to mix with girls from the same background . . is Gainsborough/Reynolds.)
All this diplomatic euphemising is quite unnecessary, though, as working-class English people generally do not have a problem with the c-word, and are quite happy to call themselves working class. Upper-class English people are also often rather blunt and no-nonsense about class. It is not that these top and bottom classes are any less class-conscious than the middle ranks; they just tend to be less angst-ridden and embarrassed about it all. Their class-consciousness is also, in many cases, rather less subtle and complex than that of the middle classes: they tend not to perceive as many layers or delicate distinctions. Their class-radar recognizes at the most three classes: working, middle and upper; and sometimes only two, with the working class dividing the world into 'us and the posh', and the upper class seeing only 'us and the plebs'.
Nancy Mitford is a good example, with her simple binary division of society into 'U and non-U', which takes no account of the fine gradations between lower-middle, middle-middle and upper-middle - let alone the even more microscopic nuances distinguishing, say, 'secure, established upper-middle'from 'anxious, borderline upper-middle' that are only of interest to the tortured middle classes. And to nosey social anthropologists.