Long life

Alexander Chancellor: what’s wrong with the word ‘toilet’?

I am embarrassed not by people using ‘non-U’ expressions but by people who still care about such things

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

I was having a nice telephone conversation with a friend the other day when I put my foot in it by suggesting that we might soon meet for a ‘meal’. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘Perhaps lunch or dinner?’ For a second I couldn’t think what he meant; but then it drifted back to me that there had once been a time — long, long ago — when I, too, might have been embarrassed by talk of a meal. For use of the word ‘meal’, clear and straightforward though it is, was thought ‘common’ or ‘non-U’ in those days, an indicator of social inferiority, though I cannot imagine why.

The terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ (‘U’ standing for ‘upper-class’) were coined in the 1950s by Professor Alan Ross, of Birmingham University’s linguistics department, but then made famous by Nancy Mitford in her essay ‘The English Aristocracy’, which included a glossary of words and phrases supposedly favoured by one class or the other. The ‘non-U’ words tended to be euphemistic and suggest middle-class aspirations to refinement, the ‘U’ words to be plain, direct and down-to-earth. But the whole thing felt suspiciously like an artificial construct by the upper class to boost its own sense of superiority and to protect it from infiltration by members of the class below.


I was brought up to believe myself more ‘U’ than ‘non-U’, but close enough to the latter to feel a degree of social unease and embarrassment at the use of ‘non-U’ words. (My mother didn’t help by describing our family as ‘upper middle-class’ or possibly ‘lower upper-class’, I can’t remember which.) But anyway, it’s quite different now. I am still easily embarrassed; not by people using ‘non-U’ expressions but, on the contrary, by people who still care about such things. I don’t wince at somebody saying ‘toilet’ instead of ‘lavatory’; I wince at somebody wincing at somebody else doing it. For what’s wrong with the word ‘toilet’ anyway? I remember when I first went to Italy that I heard some people using the word gabinetto instead of toiletta to describe a lavatory and immediately assumed that gabinetto must be the ‘U’ word for it. But in fact posh Italian people say toiletta and only lower-class ones say gabinetto. These are dangerous waters.

I admit that there are certain ‘non-U’ words in Nancy Mitford’s glossary that I don’t use. I don’t say ‘dress suit’ instead of ‘dinner jacket’ or ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’ or ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ or ‘lounge’ instead of ‘drawing-room’ (though I would normally say ‘sitting-room’ instead of ‘drawing-room’). But that’s just habit; and I certainly do use several other of her ‘non-U’ words, such as ‘mirror’, ‘mantelpiece’, ‘glasses’, ‘teacher’ and ‘ice cream’ (what on earth is wrong with ‘ice cream’?).

More than half a century has passed since Nancy Mitford wrote her essay, and language must have changed enormously during that period. Who knows how many of her ‘non-U’ words are still in use among the aspiring middle classes, and how many are now perfectly acceptable in the grandest circles? Language changes all the time, and hundreds of Americanisms once considered barbaric on this side of the Atlantic are now not even regarded as Americanisms. In the 18th century, the American verb ‘to belittle’ was considered in England to be the height of vulgarity. This seems extraordinary now.

And apart from all that, do we still have an upper class? And if so, who are its members? In addition to the old English aristocracy and landed gentry (what’s left of it) they must surely include the new rich, the Russian oligarchs and so on, who may now rank as high as anyone in society. And if these different kinds of people now comprise the upper class, they are hardly bound together by language, since they all speak it in different ways. All this is rather liberating for someone like me who was brought up to believe in the importance of the class distinctions that Nancy Mitford described. I am still old-fashioned in many ways. I believe in punctuation and verbs in sentences. But the concepts of ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ now feel meaningless. It’s hard to eliminate snobbery completely, however, and what’s left of mine is now directed principally against those who still cling to their Mitfordian illusions and get very cross when their children ask if they can go to the toilet.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • george

    Good points. It might be worth observing, though, that some ‘barbarisms’ really are illiterate/tasteless/crass/inelegant/imprecise/unpleasant. It’s the things we like that survive. The ones we don’t like die quiet deaths and are forgotten.

    Incidentally, I note that you use ‘comprise’ in the current American sense of ‘compose’ or ‘make up’, when in fact it has long meant ‘consists of’. But ‘comprise’ is an unintuitive, confusing word (which is why I never use it). Did you include it on purpose? Or is it just that American usage, justified or not, will prove triumphant in British speech because the Brits no longer know any better?

    At least your last sentence doesn’t speak of ‘kids’.

    • Icebow

      Stickler though I generally am, I do find myself fond of some Americanisms, not that I’d use them in serious conversation. Kid was in the OED as slang (without mention of US origin) in the 1960s.

      ‘Knock yourself out, go nuts.’

      I draw the line at ‘I’m good’ for ‘I’m well’.

      Hope you won’t be down-voting me any time soon.

      • george

        ‘Kid’ was OK back when it was occasional, and when there weren’t ‘Kids’ Departments’ and people didn’t talk about ‘having kids’. It was OK when it was a variation on terms such as ‘chicks’, i.e. terms of affection. It was even OK when it referred to adolescents or people not quite adults. But I learned to dislike it particularly as someone hearing North Americans say it, because it always sounded so crass and vulgar to my ears. And that aura of unseriousness and vulgarity — commonness, in the English idiom — has permanently infected the word for me. It’s like referring to women all the time as ‘gals’ or ‘broads’, which would be icky, wouldn’t it?

        • Icebow

          I feel your pain, but I suppose we’re none of us immune to linguistic evolution, and I speak as one who still spells connexion thus ultra-correctly. Presently means ‘soon’ these days, unless perhaps in Scotland, whereas it used to mean ‘at once’.

          • pedestrianblogger

            The use of “right now” irritates me, almost beyond measure. How can one qualify “now”? I accept that it is an American idiom and forgive our rude colonial cousins for their perpetuation of this linguistic barbarity but, when I hear it spoken by members of the governing class of these blessed isles, I fear for the future of our once great nation.

          • Icebow

            Well, we do use for now to mean ‘until further notice’, as I suppose amounts to a qualification. An American, observing that we do this, might well feel justified in using right to indicate immediacy. The OED, in any event, has one of numerous meanings of right as ‘exactly, quite’.
            Give due credit to the cousins. They spell verbs such as realize in the more correct way, as italicized. Thanks perhaps largely to the subliterate laziness of subeditors, a majority of Britons now seem to think that the –ise termination is correct for British English. I have seen a certain clutching at French straws in an attempt to justify this. I have heard an ‘expert’ on Radio 4 saying simply that the –ize termination was an Americanism. Won’t wash. Whether –izein or –izare: same difference.

          • george

            He hasn’t read his H. W. Fowler then, has he?

          • Icebow

            Let him (or her) answer.

          • george

            “I have heard an ‘expert’ on Radio 4 saying simply that the -ize termination was an Americanism”.

            I was referring to that person, the supposed expert. PB knows I use Z and approves.

          • Toby Esterházy

            -ize is no longer considered correct for most words in British English. Languages change. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 c. 17 (4 & 5 Geo. 5) used the word “naturalization” with a “z”, whereas the British Nationality Act 1948 c. 56 (11 & 12 Geo. 6) spelled “naturalisation” with an “s”.

          • george

            What’s the basis of the ‘correctness’ though, Toby? The s in question sounds like zzzzzz…. What’s the hazard in spelling it that way? Or should I have written ‘hasard’?

          • Icebow

            I have already admitted that most people in the UK consider -ise to be generally correct British English, but being in that majority does not save them from being wrong. It is an option, of course, but not one that the literate should prefer. That majority, or subeditors and government writers at least, should be less lazy, and acquire the knowledge of where the -ise termination is undeniably correct.

          • george

            Really, darling : )

          • george

            I would use presently as you use it, but it rarely if ever comes up….

          • Icebow

            Just to be clear: I use presently in the usual modern sense.

          • george

            Yeah, me too.

  • ngourlay

    There remains still a class division in language, but our class structure has changed so that it is no longer useful to differentiate between old wealth and new wealth. The new division is between an educated elite and those who recognise there are speech patterns used by those in power, but who aren’t fluent in their use.

    Thus, I sometimes hear “my wife and I” used in a context where “my wife and me” is grammatically correct. It’s a giveaway for someone who’s trying hard to master their own language, without success.

    Latinate sentence constructions are a safe bet for spotting those who have grown up within a literate household – “If having finished your dinner you are still hungry, take a piece of fruit.”

    • Icebow

      I have never ceased to be annoyed by subliterate comedians’ portraying the use of one, to mean a general person, as an affectation on the part of royals.

  • DeadmanTurner

    Using “meal”, of course, can lead to the troubles which Freddie Widgeon underwent in “Noblesse Oblige”, by P.G. Wodehouse; Freddie needed to win 1,000 francs at the casino, just to oblige an old school chum:

    The next voice Freddie heard was that of the old school chum, come to collect his mille. Freddie gladly handed the mille over to the fellow who hastily stuffed his pockets. He thanked Freddie profusely, adding that it was much more than he expected because all he needed was about 50 francs to pay for a meal.
    It was now that Freddie could determine the mix-up between “meal” and “mille,” though it was too late to ask the chap for his money back. The stranger then said “Thanks, Postlethwaite,” which opened up a whole new line of confusion. Freddie asked who Postlethwaite was, and the stranger said it was Freddie, and he knew it was Freddie because he was wearing the old school tie.
    Freddie retorted that he was not Postlethwaite and the tie was not his but one he pinched from his uncle. The stranger then burst into laughter about the above mix-up, thanked Freddie for the mille, and left.

  • Ghangstalked

    Genuine class may be independent of manners, mannerisms and wealth.

    Genuine class may be a function of ethics and civilized behaviour.

    • Icebow

      Hmmm. Manners as generally understood might well be described as civilized behaviour, and ethics in the practical sense well-demonstrated thereby. Mannerisms may be independent of anything. Wealth is useful, and may or may not be conducive to ethical behaviour.
      ‘Genuine class’ might well seem a qualification too far, of an imprecise colloquial meaning of class.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Liberal Arts Muppets would be drowning in their own effluent if the artisan class weren`t there to bail them out.

    • Toby Esterházy

      The Liberal Arts? You do have some very strange and obsessive one-man pet hates, don’t you?

  • Fred Scuttle

    I remember when dinner meant lunch. What’s wrong with bog?

  • Graham Cresswell

    In a few years time, there will only be two words left in the English language and they will be “like” and “init”. You rail against what you see as a snobbish preoccupation with style. What worries me is the loss of precision that has followed the educational establishment’s refusal to teach grammar, spelling and punctuation. I don’t see how our young will be able to compete with the rest of the world if they can only speak “muddlespeak”.

  • padraigcolman

    Lavatory is a euphemism. what is wrong with shithouse?

    • Icebow

      Jakes is non-euphemistic, and goes back a way.

      • padraigcolman

        Necessary house is another. Shithouse is more explicit.

        • Icebow

          ‘Necessary house’ sounds euphemistic to me.
          ‘Shithouse’ is absolutely explicit.
          There is another one like jakes, but I can’t remember it.
          I suppose one might just use ‘the euphemism’.
          I have an indoor euphemism myself.

          • padraigcolman

            My aunt used to call it The Houses of Parliament.

          • padraigcolman

            That same aunt used to work as a cleaner at
            a railway station in Ireland and was horrified when an American tourist asked
            for “the bathroom”. She couldn’t imagine why anyone one would want to take a
            bath at a railway station.

            Evelyn Waugh’s character Apthorpe has a
            portable Thunderbox. Cludgie is used on the Celtic fringes.

  • Heinrich Hupfwald

    Best point by far is
    ” do we still have an upper class?”
    To which the obvious answer is ‘no’ if we are referring to the aristocracy (cf D. Cannadine).

    There is of course a new elite but they are the shadows of institutions that changed longed ago.

    besides classes change as often as their demarcators. One such demarcator of the new higher classes for instance is having such a ridiculous name (‘Magoo’ leaps to the head) that only those who can afford not to care about its implications or consequences can have them.

  • Tom Miller

    You still believe in punctuation, eh? Perhaps you should learn how it works.

    “My mother didn’t help by describing our family as ‘upper middle-class’ or possibly ‘lower upper-class’, I can’t remember which.” This sentence needs a dash, full stop or semi-colon–not a comma.

    “I am still easily embarrassed; not by people using ‘non-U’ expressions but, on the contrary, by people who still care about such things.” Semi-colon? No. A dash would work much better.

Close