Much of the media narrative leading up to today's wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has focused on Kate's "commoner" background, particularly her mother's family, hailing from the humble coal-mining country of northern England. In class-conscious British society, differences in social background come through in speech patterns — as anyone who's seen "My Fair Lady" knows. So how have the royal family and the middle-class Middletons navigated this tricky linguistic terrain?

Kate's parents, Michael and Carole, are self-made millionaires, having set up a successful party-supply business. But when William and Kate began dating, after meeting as classmates at University of St. Andrews, stories began emerging from the royal circle about snobbery over the Middletons' less-than-aristocratic roots. Carole was particularly singled out for abuse, especially after she was seen chewing nicotine gum at William's military college graduation parade in 2006, in the presence of William's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.

The following year, the knives came out for Carole when it was reported that William and Kate had split up. Now the focus was on something more embarrassing than gum-chewing: Carole's middle-class speech, inappropriate when addressing the Queen. The London tabloids breathlessly reported (based on unnamed "Royal sources") that Kate was clearly not a good match for William because her mother used words such as Pleased to meet you, toilet, and Pardon?

Pleased to meet you, the tabloids explained, is a gauche way to greet the Queen, when Hello, ma'am is called for. Rather than toilet, one should say lavatory or loo. And when asking someone to repeat a question, middle-class Pardon? is frowned upon, in favor of a simple What? All of this might seem extremely puzzling to outsiders, but these class-based shibboleths do actually exist in British society (even if Carole's alleged gaffes might have been embellished as tabloid fodder).

The class differences trumpeted by the tabloids were first laid out in 1954, when the linguist Alan S.C. Ross introduced the terms "U and non-U" to describe English usage of the upper class and the aspiring middle class. Ross had published his article in an obscure journal, but the novelist and socialite Nancy Mitford (who came from a decidedly aristocratic background) brought "U and non-U" to wider attention in an essay she wrote two years later. Even then, Pleased to meet you, toilet, and Pardon? all made the "non-U" vocabulary lists of Ross and Mitford — indicative, they said, of unseemly social striving among middle-class speakers trying to appear more genteel.

Much has changed in Britain's social landscape in the last half century, and yet these class markers continue to persist. In a 2004 book entitled Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, the social anthropologist Kate Fox lists "seven words that the English uppers and upper-middles regard as infallible shibboleths." Fox writes, "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." Pardon? and toilet lead off the list, followed by serviette (instead of napkin), dinner (instead of lunch, when referring to the midday meal), settee (instead of sofa), lounge (instead of sitting room or drawing room), and sweet (instead of pudding, for the sweet course at the end of a meal that Americans call dessert).

As the flap over Carole Middleton's supposed linguistic offenses showed, there are still lingering anxieties over how to "talk posh." Actually, as Fox explains in her book, "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." Got it?

As for Kate and William, any qualms over the class divide don't seem to have manifested themselves since their temporary breakup in 2007. (In the meantime, a more socially embarrassing relative of Kate has emerged: her dissolute uncle Gary, brother of Carole, who sports a "Nouveau Riche" tattoo across his shoulder blades.) It turns out that the couple and their circle are united in another kind of social grouping, known as rahs or yahs, roughly equivalent to American preppies. A recent Slate article lampooned the affluent ways of the rahs and how they stereotypically speak:

What is the rah patois? You must know our ding-a-lingo, darling. Everything is glorious, divine, splendid, beauteous, naughty, a twirling whirl. We adore archaisms: alas, anon, perchance. Never say evening. It's eve. Never say balsamic. It's balsam. Adorn everything with French. Je t'embrasse. Ce soir. Chez moi. I am a flâneuse. You are a flâneur. Let us troubadour ensemble. Bisous!

Bonded in rah-dom, perhaps Kate and William can steer clear of the social pitfalls of past generations, creating a new kind of prestigious talk to aspire to. In the meantime, if you happen to get an audience with William's grandmum, remember not to tell her you're pleased to meet her.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 29th 2011, 11:29 PM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
May there always be an England!
Saturday April 30th 2011, 4:08 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom)
'what' is not used instead of pardon - in fact it is considered very rude and abrupt - and in addition I do not agree with toilet vs lavatory or loo - where did you get this rubbish! At least not in the company of professional friends that I have. You better come and live in the real world.
Saturday April 30th 2011, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Michael: I assure you, I wouldn't make this stuff up! First off, there's the 1954 article by Alan S.C. Ross (p. 138): "Pardon! is used by the non-U... if the hearer does not hear the speaker properly." The "U-correspondence" is "very curt: ... What?" And Kate Fox says in her book (p. 76) that Pardon? is "the most notorious pet hate of the upper and upper-middle classes" and is considered "worse than swearing." (Those who say Pardon? are snidely said to come from Pardonia.) Fox writes that when someone says something quietly, a "lower-middle or middle-middle" will say Pardon?, an "upper-middle" will say Sorry?, and an upper-class and a working-class person will both just say What?. The pronunciation of What? will distinguish the upper-class from the working-class speaker (with the working-class speaker glottalizing the final t), according to Fox. As for toilet, she says it's "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," she says, is "loo or lavatory."

And finally, there are the various tabloid stories about Carole Middleton in 2007 (e.g., here: "Additionally, Mrs Middleton used the word 'toilet' rather than 'lavatory' and also 'pardon' rather than 'I beg your pardon' or even the more socially acceptable 'what?'").
Monday May 2nd 2011, 9:51 AM
Comment by: John P.
Sounds like Michael's middle class!
Monday May 2nd 2011, 5:23 PM
Comment by: Christina D.
Michael what does having 'professional friends' have to do with U and Non U terms? I have a profession and was brought up never to say 'pardon' or 'toilet' or 'settee' or 'dessert'. At the prep school my children attend you won't hear those terms either. Welcome to another real world that you have clearly never encountered.
Monday May 2nd 2011, 9:38 PM
Comment by: Paul A.
I read comments like Christina's and wonder if they teach respect and civility at her children's prep school. I hope so because her poor darlings are not going to learn it at home.
Friday May 6th 2011, 2:54 AM
Comment by: Jonathon G. (LONDON United Kingdom)
I can't offer chapter or verse, but I have definitely read that as regards U and Non-U Nancy Mitford regarded the whole thing as 'a big tease', and was duly amused to find that it was taken so seriously. And whatever their social validity at the outset, such things have come to be believed. Kate Fox is spot on.
Thursday May 12th 2011, 9:10 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
One would tend to think ( at least I would as a non-native English speaker ) that "pardon" is a more appropriate way to address upper-class people than "what" which sounds brusque, curt and ungracious.

Likewise, "pleased to meet you" would seem to be more acceptable to the ears of those people than just "Hello, ma'am". Anyway, upper-class speech, what do I know ?

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