Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, February 18, 2022

Nancy Mitford's U and Non-U Idiom


My copies of books that contain Nancy's
articles on U and Non-U.

Context is everything -- and I'm not just saying that because it is apparently my greatest strength according to a test I just took.

In 1955, Nancy Mitford was asked to write an article about the English aristocracy. She thought it was silly, and was uncertain if she would agree. In fact, she wrote a letter to a family friend, Violet Hammersley, and said: 

"Can't quite decide, but if I do it will contain volleys of teases."

Anyone familiar with Nancy knew her wit and witticisms. She was dry, and people didn't often understand her sarcasm. They thought her cruel or snobbish, but I find her fascinating and hilarious.

Nancy did decide to write the article, and she sure did add in a lot of teases.

But, when printed on paper without the benefit of facial expression, or even a small laugh, and especially without being familiar with Nancy on a personal level, a teasing opinion of her own "upperclass" was taken out of context, and in fact caused quite a stir.

One of the elements she included in the article was the U versus Non-U idioms. U stands for Upperclass, and Non-U is Non-Upperclass. In her article she states that she spoke with Professor Ross from Birmingham University, explicitly so that she would not be accused of snobbishness, and that no one would dare accuse a professor. I find this to be rather clever and very "Nancy" of her. But people took all of this incredibly seriously. In fact, they still talk about it today, and they've updated her list for more modern use, AND--no one talks about Professor Ross, even though his list inspired hers.

So what are some examples of U and Non-U?

According to Nancy (and Professor Ross):

Napkin (U) vs Serviette (Non-U)

Bike (U) vs Cycle (Non-U)

Sick (U) vs Ill (Non-U)

Lavatory Paper (U) vs Toilet Paper (Non-U)

House (U) vs Home (Non-U)

In Noblesse Oblige, which Nancy edited, she included her article and then one one written by Professor Ross, which expands on the U vs. Non-U. 

Looking glass (U) vs. Mirror (Non-U)

Jam (U) vs Preserves (Non-U)

Rich (U) vs Wealthy (Non-U)

Additionally added to Noblesse Oblige, was her friend Evelyn Waugh's printed response to her English aristocracy article. At the time people saw it as a public rebuke of her, but if you knew how close the two of them were, how very sarcastic they were with each other, then you'd see beyond the actual language to the context beneath which was a teasing reply in itself. 

His response opens with: 

"Were you surprised that your article on the English aristocracy caused such a to-do? I wasn't. I have long revered you as an agitator--agitatrix, agitateuse?--of genius." 

I mean who would read that and think he was serious? Well, I suppose it would be people who didn't know them and those who were already irate about her teasing article to begin with. 

The funny thing is, Nancy laughed later that she did use mirror and several other Non-U words in her novels. And I think it's even more funny that to this day, 70+ years later, people are still taking it so seriously.

When I was writing my novel, THE MAYFAIR BOOKSHOP, I did a lot of studying of language and "Mitford idiom", because Nancy and her siblings had a singular way of speaking, and I wanted it to come across as authentic in my novel. It wasn't just the U vs. Non-U, they had a lot of words they used that were different than others, some from their own language called Boudledidge, and some just an over-exaggeration of English words like wondair for wonder. They also spoke with a very posh sounding accent that the youngest Deborah remarked on it being irritating even to her sometimes, and that got Nancy removed from a BBC series was hosting. I really enjoyed the deep dive, and I hope you've had some fun reading about the different words.

So, tell me, are you more of a luncheon person or a mid-day dinner? Guess which is U and Non-U!

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