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The English author and socialite Nancy Mitford wrote numerous well-received articles and books during her career, including the loosely autobiographical novel, The Pursuit of Love, which has been made into a new television series debuting this week on Amazon. But it is her short essay “The English Aristocracy,” first published in Encounter magazine, that may be her most enduring legacy.
In it, she referenced an academic paper “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics,” published in a Finnish journal by Alan S. C. Ross, a professor at the University of Birmingham. Ross argued that England at that time was divided into three classes and that, “It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others.” His article, which he acknowledged was based mostly on personal observation, explored differences in pronunciation, writing styles, and vocabulary.
It was the latter category on which Mitford focused, expanding on Ross’s examples with some of her own. Upper class speakers said “looking glass;” non upper class speakers said, “mirror.” “Chimney piece” was U; “mantlepiece” non-U. Some entries supported a notion that the upper class abhorred euphemism (“die” instead of “pass on”) and preferred original names to new ones (“wireless” instead of “radio”). But many of the entries seemed arbitrary.
Mitford’s article garnered enough attention that she reprinted it in book form accompanied by Ross’s paper and rebuttals from well-known writers, including her friend Evelyn Waugh. There was an inside-joke quality to the endeavor, titled Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, but the book landed in Britain at a moment when the middle class was ascending and the upper class losing clout. Understanding where one stood was serious business and many readers searched the book in earnest for clues.
Works of armchair sociology often don't endure, but there was something pernicious to Mitford’s creation. The author assumed unspecified authority on a murky subject and doled out unverifiable pronouncements. All but the most self-confident readers could not resist checking themselves against the list. Even those who denied Mitford’s assertions or insisted it was all just a big joke unwittingly participated in her project simply by engaging in the argument.
Updates and offshoots by other writers began appearing almost immediately, notably a new book of essays in 1978, U and Non-U Revisited, edited by Richard Buckle and a 2019 refresher in Tatler. In 2016, Elle Decor dedicated an entire article to “What’s the Difference: Couch Vs. Sofa?” Along with modern interpretations of U and Non-U came a different progeny: the ubiquitous “In and Out” list.
On the 60th anniversary of the publication of Mitford's list, the arts and lifestyle journalist Leslie Geddes-Brown explored its legacy for Country Life magazine. “I suspect–I would like to suspect–that Mitford made a whole lot up in the spirit of pure mischief,” she wrote at the beginning of the piece. Further on, though, she conceded its effects were felt in her own home. “My mother immediately decreed that we had always called them looking glasses (we hadn’t) and that we should make sure we went on doing so.”
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