Snobbery Is Just So Tempting ; ARTS & BOOKS REVIEW

Article excerpt

"Pleased to meet you," Mrs Carole Middleton said on being presented to the Queen, and, if we are to believe the newspapers, went on to soil Her Majesty's ears by using the word "toilet". Add in the offence of simultaneously chewing gum - which seems, as a friend of mine observed, an implausibly showy hat-trick - and courtiers quickly came to the conclusion that Mrs Middleton, and by extension her daughter Kate, were unfit for polite society.

It might have been the gum-chewing, but the upper classes have always sought to distinguish themselves from the lower orders principally by means of their speech. Aspirational members of the middle classes, from the 1950s to the 1980s, purged their speech of its usages of "settee", "living room", "pardon", "home", "toilet", "serviette" and, in extreme cases, even "mirror". Inspired by Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige, they practised saying "sofa", "sitting room", "what", "house", "loo", "napkin" and "looking-glass".

Upper-class usage has never been as unified or as static as glossaries suggest, however. It used to be vulgar to stress the first syllable in "balcony" or "peony", and few people now insist on "luncheon". Once all the middle classes had learnt not to say "pardon", the upper classes shifted their own usage; the Princess Royal, I believe, says "ee-ther", and I've heard the grand-daughter of a Duke say "toilet", and even "ever so". Perhaps it was meant as a joke.

In any case, the only firm rule seems to be that a word is common when somebody common says it - and what could be more common than a middle-class person pretentiously referring to a "looking-glass" in their "house"? When somebody posh uses a word, it becomes posh.

The dialect, or idiolect, of the aristocracy is, in short, designed to be impossible for anyone not born into it to master, and sometimes dif-ficult for outsiders even to understand. When Princes William and Harry appeared on American television, their speech had to be subtitled.

The private speech of the ruling classes may be forbiddingly difficult for anyone trying to master it in real life. For a writer, however, it can hardly be anything but a seductive prospect. Everyone who has seen the Oscar-winning film The Queen, and heard Peter Morgan's screenplay, has commented on the extraordinary authenticity of its speech. …