Hooray Henries and riff-raff have been replaced by sloanes and chavs, but we still seem to need words that essentially differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Most societies have their aristocracies and their proleteriats, but it is a very particular society that can subtly distinguish between middle-middle class and nouveau riche, upper middle and trying too hard.
And in England we have lots of ways of distinguishing between our classes, whether it is brand names like Kappa and Reebok, Ralph Lauren and LK Bennet, or accents, first names and slang. A ‘chav’ might be called Tracey, wear a full tracksuit, gold hoops and a Vicky Pollard Croydon facelift ponytail, whilst Sloaney Mimi might wear a cashmere jumper, a pashmina and loafers. But there are so many variations and few hard and fast laws.
The Jack Wills problem, for example. One, quietly logoed pair of tracksuit bottoms could sit perfectly well on upper-class legs, ‘not because it’s Jack Wills, just because they’re so old and comfortable…’ but woe betide the top-to-toe JW wearer, who is likely to be painfully middle-class. The more logos, whatever they are, the less classy the look. Just look at the WAGs compared with Kate Middleton. You’d never know where half her clothes are from, but you know they’re not cheap. In short, there are so many rules and so many exceptions.
So, if you want to find out the Seven Deadly Sins (according to social anthropologist Kate Fox) that will show you up as a pretender to the upper echelons, read on. But it’s worth noting that if you care too much about them, then you’re probably trying too hard (another cardinal offence and symptom of class pretensions). Oh dear…
Jilly Cooper wrote in her 1981 book ‘Class’ that “I once heard my son regaling his friends: ‘Mummy says that pardon is a much worse word than fuck.'” The word ‘pardon’, to the upper and upper-middle classes, is an unacceptably lower-class signal. If you’re upper-class you’ll say ‘What?’, and if you’re upper-middle, you might say ‘Sorry?’
The higher classes say ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the middle classes might say ‘ladies’ or ‘bathroom’.
A ‘serviette’ is a pretentious middle-class word for what the upper-classes call a ‘napkin’.
The word dinner itself is fine, but only to describe an evening meal (using it to describe a midday meal is sniffed at). Dinner is a more formal term than supper, which might be an informal family meal. Using ‘tea’ to mean an evening meal, rather than scones (not sc-owns, but scones with a short ‘o’) and jam, is also frightfully lower-class.
‘Settee’ is common, sofa is upper-middle or above. Couch is American.
Settees normally come in lounges or living rooms, sofas come in sitting rooms or drawing rooms.
Amongst the upper classes, the sweet course at the end of a meal is always ‘pudding’, not ‘a sweet’, ‘afters’ or ‘dessert’ (although ‘dessert’, as an Americanism, is the least offensive).
It is clear that the English, whilst we bang on about integration and inclusion, are always coming up with new ways to discern between upper and lower, haves and have-nots, pretentious and effortless, us and them. And each subclass has its own fashions and faux-pas.
And, at Oxford, where we’re supposed to make new friends from all walks of life (OUSU euphemism for ‘from all classes’), the truth of the matter is that we all end up with fairly similar circles of friends from fairly similar backgrounds.
In Fox’s words, ‘every English person (whether we admit it or not) is aware of and highly sensitive to all of the delicate divisions’ of class that surround and mould us.
But to successfully navigate through all of these different kinds of people, neither offending nor pretending, with enough self-confidence to feel fairly comfortable anywhere? Now that is a real sign of a touch of class.