Jean Aitcheson (Language Change: Progress or Decay? 1981) & Guy Deutscher (The Unfolding of Language, 2005)


Spreading the Word – Jean Aitcheson

  • The origin and spread of language change was as obscure to the majority of linguists as the source of disease.
  • [Language change] is for the most part below the level of consciousness.
  • Simply staring to exaggerate a tendency which was already there
  • A change tends to sneak into the language like a seed, which enters the soil and germinates unseen
  • Changes… around the time of the Second World War, perhaps because of a growing awareness as Americans.
  • People may only become socially aware of a change when it reaches a certain crucial point.
  • A new group starts to model itself on the group which has now adopted a linguistic initiative as the norm.
  • New York apparently followed the lead of… fashionable cities


The Forces of Creation – Guy Deutscher

  • Without what you write off as so much delay, we wouldn’t have gone much beyond grunts and groans.
  • We distinguish between ‘content’ and ‘grammar’ when we talk about a language, but when you stop to think about it, the only valid reason for drawing the distinction in the first place is meaning: we call some words ‘content words’ because they have an independent meaning, and we call other words ‘grammatical words’ because they don’t.
  • In real life, the actual meaning of what you say is often more than the literal sense of the words. What you say may not be exactly what you imply. How the hearer interprets what you said may not be exactly what you think you implied.
  • There are two common motives that are always behind the scene: the desire to enhance our expressive range on the other hand and laziness on the other.
  • When two words appear together extremely frequently, the border between them can lose its relevance, so that when the phrase is worn down, the two words fuse into one.
  • Erosion keeps pounding at words, making them shorter and shorter. But shortened words are piled up into longer expressions, and the same forces of erosion then hack away at the pile, fuse the words and condenses them into a more compact word once more.
  • Erosion is also a regenerative force that constantly creates new and leaner structure from over-weight multi-word phrases.
  • Erosion is a highly useful compacting mechanism which allows us to convey ideas faster and more efficiently. Erosion checks the excesses of expressiveness, just as expressiveness repairs the excess of erosion.


The Forces of Destruction – Guy Deutscher


  • “What looks messy and irregular at one point in time can appear perfectly logical when traced through history.”


There are many words in the English language which don’t fit our patterns and we label them as “irregular”. However, these words are not errors; they were created in the same logical way as all others, but may not make sense to us nowadays because some of our grammatical rules have changed over time.


  • “The English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.”


Language change isn’t something that recently began; it has been occurring since the beginning of communication. Prescriptivists who act like language change is going to ruin English are hypocritical, because their “Golden Age” of language wouldn’t exist if we didn’t embrace change decades ago.


  • So, like any other living organism, languages have an early period of growth, followed by a period of decay.”


Language isn’t “decaying” for no reason, and the change which are happening to English are not entirely destructive. After language has expanded for some time, it needs to change in order to keep the balance and stay up to date with society.


  • “The image of a flawless language spoken some time in prehistory turns out to have been mainly a mirage. In reality, there never was a Golden Age of perfection.”


There was never a period where the English language was perfect, or even close to it. It has been changing since the day English came about and linguists simply decide when they think it was “golden” based on their own subjective beliefs and opinions.


  • “The forces of destruction almost seem to leap out of the pages of practically any language’s history, but the contrary processes, the productive forces of renewal and creation, are much more difficult to spot.”


Creation occurs in English just as much as destruction, but people don’t take as much notice of the subtle changes as they do to the decay because it is more obvious to us.


  • “If the changes only mess things up, then how did languages ever reach their Golden Age in the first place?”


Language change can’t possibly be bad, because it led to every good feature of English that prescriptivists care about preserving. If English had never passed the initial creation stage, then all of the grammar rules and pronunciations that prescriptivists are trying to preserve wouldn’t exist.


A Reef of Dead Metaphors – Guy Deutscher

Deutscher’s central contention is that metaphors are essential components of our language, and that all language is built on metaphor.

Metaphor is an essential component of language because it is the only way that we can describe and discuss abstract concepts (by making them/linking them to concrete concepts):

  • ‘Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us’
  • ‘the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction’
  • ‘metaphor is endemic in the structure of language’
  • ‘the mind cannot just manufacture words for abstract concepts out of thin air – all it can do is adapt what is already available … the only way we have of expanding our expressive range to encompass abstract ideas is to draw on concrete terms’

EXAMPLE: ‘understand’ originally ‘meant … ‘step under’, ’comprehend’ comes from Latin ‘seize’

EXAMPLE: ‘we consistently think of more complex or abstract notions (such as self-esteem or the economy) in terms of simpler spatial directions, up and down’

  • ‘If apples are piled up in the larder, the more apples, the higher the pile’
  • But the image ‘has gone far beyond this original basis’

EXAMPLE: ‘to have’ is an abstract concept, which is expressed through different metaphors for possession in all languages

  • Russian, Turkish and Irish use ‘physical proximity as a metaphor for … possession’
  • Breton and Tamil use the idea that ‘if something is intended for you, it is yours’
  • Spanish and English use the idea of ‘what one holds or carries or siezes’


Process begins with a concrete term being applied to abstract concept:

  • ‘[Words are] transported out of [their] original environment in the physical world of materials, and carried across to the abstract domain of ideas’
  • ‘all the metaphors flow in once direction, from the concrete to the abstract’

EXAMPLE: ‘’tough’ is really an attribute of materials like fabrics, metals or meat’


The figurative sense may overtake the literal one:

  • ‘What was once a vibrant metaphor has thus asserted itself as the usual meaning of [a word], and the literal sense is hardly remembered’

EXAMPLE: ‘curb’ was used for ‘curbing the movement of a horse’ but is now much more frequently applied to ‘curbing … power’


These metaphors inevitably lose their force and become dead metaphors:

  • ‘’Tough’ may once have been a glamourous newcomer in the domain of ideas
  • ‘all semblance of former vitality has been lost’
  • They become ‘the stock-in-trade of ordinary language’
  • ‘we trample on the relic of metaphors all the time [without] a moment’s thought’
  • ‘the death of metaphors in no way detracts from their usefulness, as they simple add more means to our vocabulary’


ALL of our language has gone through this process: (see page 125 for more examples)

EXAMPLE: Old English ‘thyrlian’ meant ‘pierce’ so ‘’I’m thrilled to bits (literally ‘I’m pierced to bits’) must have been a graphic equivalent of today’s ‘it’s killing’ or ‘smashing’’

EXAMPLE: ‘’Sarcastic’ comes from Greek ‘flesh-tearing’’


The concepts and associations based on which we create metaphors may be common across languages which share no roots:

  • ‘Similar metaphors are found in languages all over the world’

EXAMPLE: English ‘decide’ comes from Latin ‘cut off’

  • ‘[physically] cutting or separating seem to be the source of the concept of ‘deciding’’
  • This image is seen in the German, Ancient Greek, Swahili, Chinese (and others) ‘decide’


Metaphor ‘categories’, too, become dead, even if the individual term is original:

  • ‘a well-established link in our mind between … two domains … conceptual metaphors

EXAMPLE: ‘souffle of promises’ isn’t especially striking because it ‘belongs to a larger context which is familiar…food terms to describe abstract ideas’


Even functional grammatical elements were originally metaphors:

  • ‘there is no known language where spatial terms are not also used to describe temporal [time] relations … prepositions … originally denoted spatial terms, and … were metaphorically extended into the domain of time’
  • ‘there is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts’






Language Myths


  1. “Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Any More” James Milroy

40% of brides and bride-grooms couldn’t write their own names – Children are now taught to read and write from a very early age and have basic linguistic abilities that many adults didn’t have in the 19th Century.

Difficult words like supersede and dilapidateMost people struggle with spellings regardless of how literate they are, so children not being able to spell difficult words that aren’t used in everyday language doesn’t reflect their literacy level

 She come to my house – The use of present tense come is grammatically incorrect for this clause, but when spoken it isn’t a big enough mistake to alter the meaning

 I threw it out the window – Although the Standard English form of this would include the word of, it is still very obvious what the speaker means

The government think they can do what they like – This is an example of a Standard English clause which prescriptivists still take issue with when used by young people due to discrepancies between whether government is singular or plural

 We was… – In the past this was commonly used by the upper-middle class so it was deemed as grammatically correct but now it is unacceptable in writing


2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill

All English speakers used to pronounce the k in ‘knee’ but they don’t anymore

Language changes all the time inc grammar, pronunciation and spellings, language change cannot be halted but languages themselves are self-regulating systems as their speakers want to be understood and be able to understand others.

The gradual changing of the meaning of ‘nice’ over the past 6,000 years in the order ‘not cutting,’ ‘shy,’ ‘modest,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘considerate,’ ‘pleasant,’ and now ‘agreeable.’

Trudgill argues that how can we say language change shouldn’t happen yet people don’t go about arguing that ‘real’ meaning of ‘nice’ is ‘not cutting.’

Emotive words tend to change more rapidly by using some of their force e.g. ‘awful’ used to mean ‘inspiring awe,‘ yet now means ‘very bad.’ Or in expressions like ‘awfully good’ it just means ‘very.’

In both cases the semantic shift has caused all connections with ‘awe’ to be lost, yet no one argues using these words in those ways is wrong because the speech community is used to it.

Misuse of the words ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ has led to them now being both used in very similar ways. ‘Disinterested’ used to be equivalent to ‘neutral/ impartial’ and ‘uninterested’ was equivalent to ‘bored, feeling no curiosity.’

Because the English prefix dis- is commonly employed to turn positive adjectives into negative ones, it is unsurprising that speakers started following this pattern of using dis- to make a negative for ‘interested.’

Instead of ‘lack of interest’ we now have the possibility of using single-word nouns such as ‘uninterestedness’ or ‘disinterest.’

This possibility is highly useful, giving a wider language choice without causing confusion (linked to last example).

There is a number of pairs of words that dictionaries distinguish between e.g ‘imply’ and ‘infer.’ ‘Imply’ being that someone has suggested something themselves and ‘infer’ meaning that the listener has deduced something from the speakers words.

Not everyone knows these converse terms have different meanings so use them in the same way, yet it is unlikely there will be any actual confusion of meaning. Therefore it cannot be argued by prescriptivists that this could be potentially confusing so shouldn’t be permitted, because even if situational context doesn’t make it clear, grammatical context will.

 2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill


Peter Trudgill is a sociolinguist and well-known authority on dialects.

What is the central contention of the essay?

Trudgill argues that it is perfectly natural and potentially beneficial for the meanings of words to change over time, and that the efforts of those wishing to ‘protect’ their original meanings are both fruitless and unnecessary.

‘All languages change all the time…it is a universal characteristic of human languages.’

‘Language change cannot be halted.’

‘The English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries.’

  • It is impossible to stop language change
  • Language change is a natural and necessary part its development

‘there do not seem to be any problems of comprehension’

  • Mutual intelligibility is not (at all) infringed on when ‘precious’ distinctions are lost

‘The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means’

‘Words do not mean what we as individuals would like them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean.’

  • ‘Meanings of words are shared between people’
  • The purpose of language is communication
  • We all must agree to the same ‘social contract’ of language for effective communication
  • That means accepting words whose meanings have changed if everyone else does

‘[Some people – purists] believe that change in language is inherently undesirable’

‘If, in 200 years’ time, all English speakers use disinterested in the new way … the language will perhaps have lost something, but it will also have gained something’

‘Nor should worriers feel obliged to try to halt [language change].’

  • Aspects of every language feature can be interpreted as advantages and disadvantages
  • Embracing change does not mean the loss of all valuable language features

 What examples does the author use to support his argument?

History of ‘nice’

  • Meaning has changed from ‘ignorant’, to ‘silly’, to ‘foolish, shy’, to ‘modest’, to ‘delicate’, to ‘considerate’, to ‘pleasant’

‘Uninterested’ vs. ‘disinterested’

  • Increasing use of ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’ disliked by purists
  • No problem with distinction between two meanings of ‘interested’
  • 1) More linguistic potential (single-word corresponding noun) with change
  • 2) Useful distinction (to determine level of antipathy) gained with change

Verbs such as German ‘liehen’ (when discussing the distinction between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’)

  • Means both ‘to borrow’ and ‘to lend’
  • The distinctions which English makes are not essential for good communication
  • There is no inherently valuable language feature which ought to be preserved at all costs

 3. Some Languages are Just Not Good Enough – Ray Harlow


“Latin was restricted to certain uses within the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the conduct of services and formal communication internationally. Now it is even more restricted and it is really only now used by a few people to read the literature originally written in the language.”


“English is the language of international air traffic, business communication, scientific publication and lingua franca of tourism.”

New Zealand

“English is the first language of some 95 percent if the New Zealand population and the only       language of around 90 percent.”

“People who identify as Maori make up around 12 percent of the population.”

“Although the Maori language is seen as very important for national identity only around 30000 speak it fluently.”

“Social changes in New Zealand within the past decades , Maori has seen its uses restricted till in many places it is now only used at formal institutionalized events.”

“In the last twenty years there has been a number of initiatives in politics, education and broadcasting to try and reverse the change.”

“It is possible to notice… Maori is not good enough to be an official language beyond basic education.”

Cicero – Roman orator, politician, philosopher in first century BC

“Composed works in Latin partly to make Greek philosophy available to a Latin speakers , but to show it could be done. This is because some of his Greek contemporaries were skeptical about the possibility of Latin being able to express the ideas and trains of thought of the Greeks.”

“Latin was just not good enough! However, this was the language that went on to be the language of scholarship, science and literature for well over a millennium!”

Middle Ages  

At this time languages like French, English and Italian were too unpolished, immature and lacking resources to be able to convey abstract thought and breadth of knowledge usually expressed in ancient languages such as Greek and Latin.”

Switzerland & Romansh

A language descended from Latin.”

“It is still an everyday language in a number of villages and regions, though German has been making inroads in the area for centuries.”

“Push in recent decades to increase the areas in which Romansh is used.”

“German is able to construct clearly defined single words for technical ideas, Romansh is not. This ignore that French and Italian are in exactly the same boat as Romansh.”

“A language of Alpine agriculture.”

“It is the argument that X is not good enough because you can’t discuss nuclear physics in it.”

Old English and Modern English

“This argument cannot be maintained. Computers were not discussed in Old English ; Modern English is the same language, only later; it should follow that Modern English cannot be used to discuss computers.”

“What has happened to English is that through time English has developed the resources necessary to the discussion of computers.”

“Not all languages have the same vocabulary though.  It is true that some languages have developed vocabularies to deal with topics which are just not discussed in other languages. And developed is the crucial word.”


All languages do this to some extent, though English is perhaps the language which has the highest level of borrowed vocabulary.”

 4. Jean Aitchison: “The media are ruining English”?

Jean Aitchison – Professor of Language and Communication in the faculty of English language and literature at the University of Oxford. Main areas of interest include socio-historical linguistics, and language and the media.

Central point – “the media did not initiate [language change]; they were reflecting current usage.” Whilst the media (namely radio, television and news press) have been increasingly held accountable for the “sickening” of the English language, Aitchison puts this to a “delusion”. She stresses that the media simply picks up on new words early on and spreads their usage.

Complaints about the supposed effect of the press on English go back almost 150 years. “Among writers, those who do the most mischief are… the men generally who write for the newspapers” (from Popular errors in language 1880).

The emergence of TV and radio in the late 20th century as the main outlets of media over newspapers gives rise to concerns about the effect on spoken language as well as written.

David Crystal 1982 cited. ‘Top twenty’ complaints about broadcast language. 9 relate to grammar, 6 to pronunciation and 5 to vocabulary.

Example cited from Crystal’s ‘top twenty’ – “you and I” after a preposition versus “you and me” (the ‘correct’ version). The supposedly ‘incorrect’ version used as far back as Shakespeare in ‘the Merchant of Venice’ and, more recently, by Thatcher in the 1980s, demonstrating that it cannot have been caused by the media.

Dirty Fingernails fallacy

The idea that journalists use language sloppily.

‘Tadpole-to-frog’ analogy has been replaced by William Labov’s ‘young cuckoo’ analogy. ‘Young cuckoo’ takeovers (new words replacing older ones with the same meaning). Begin slowly then have a sudden upsurge, often nurtured by the media.

Example – “wimp”, long used to mean “feeble male” in California becomes quickly widespread, gradually ousting other terms such as “nebbish” and “nerd”.

Example – mini- prefix. Vogue magazine first noted the “mini-skirt” in 1965, assisting the explosion of the prefix which came in the 1960s.

“The media are therefore linguistic mirrors: they reflect current language usage and extend it.”

Coexistence of different pronunciations for the same word (e.g. CONtroversy and conTROVersy) worries some prescriptivists, although meaning is not obscured and the use of each variation is well-balanced (44% and 56%, respectively).

Garbage Heap fallacy

“False belief that ‘journalism is junk language’”

Aitchison asserts that “writing for the press is a demanding skill.” Newspapers need to be written in a way which “attracts attention and sustains it”. Journalists therefore have a need to avoid perhaps outdated or overly-florid language to remain concise and to-the-point.

This ‘hard news formula’ must remain clear and informative. Aitchison cites George Orwell, who points out the importance of keeping one’s meaning clear:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Avoid foreign or technical words.
  6. Break any of these to avoid saying anything outlandish.


4. Jean Aitcheson – The Media is Ruining Language

Findings: Media is not ruining language, it is based upon prescriptivists attitudes on language change. It is merely the media picked up on new words/ forms and spreads such usage.
Dirty Fingernail Fallacy:
This is where journalists are ‘sloppy’ and do not pay attention to the details of language; they don’t bother to scrub their linguistic fingernails clean. Yet this isn’t true, the fallacy is because of the ignorance of language change. Such change only becoming clear over 30 years ago.
In the 1950s change occurred when speakers drifted away from the true meaning of a word, therefore, one word turned into another over time- reflecting a tadpole transforming into a frog.
Young Cuckoo:
This view replaced the fallacy, pioneering from sociolinguistic William Labov that competition rather than metamorphosis is the root of language change. This was demonstrated and so that newer forms expand and gradually outburst the others and this is like a young cuckoo pushing a previous occupant out of the nest. This is usually a slow beginning and the a sudden upsurge.
Garage heap:
Is the ‘false’ belief that ‘journalism is junk writing’ although writing for the press/ newsagents is a demanding skill needed. This is due to the text attracting attention and sustains such attention from the viewers. Six guidelines that journalists are taught to follow are:
1. If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out
2. Never use a long word where a short will do
3. Never use passive if you can use an active
4. Avoid foreign and technical words
5. Never use a metaphor you’ve seen in print
6. Break these rules to avoid something outlandish


It’s really not a crime to boldly split infinitives


If there’s one thing everyone “knows” about English grammar it’s that a split infinitive is an illiterate error. For many years I’ve argued in The Pedant column of this newspaper that this widespread belief is a misconception. The split infinitive not only accords with the grammar of standard English but is essential to good style. Now I feel like Diogenes at the end of a long quest. Researchers at the University of Lancaster have found a big advance in the use of the split infinitive: a fourfold increase since the 1990s. It’s not before time.

The rule forbidding split infinitives is baloney from the outset. Technically, English doesn’t even have an infinitive form. What pedantic pundits refer to as the split infinitive is where an adjunct is inserted between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb, as in to boldly goto wearily lament, or — as I’ve done often on this subject — to frenziedly ululate. Take this sentence, which appeared a few months ago in a Timesleader: “Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.” It’s terrible syntax and I feel the pain keenly, for those words were written by me — with one exception. The version I filed read not legally to minimise but to legally minimise. In the interval before publication, a sub-editor shifted the adverb one space to the left.

Such is the baneful effect of linguistic superstition. In my wording, the adverb legally precedes what it’s supposed to modify. That’s where it ought to go. No one with a feel for the natural word order of English would write legally to minimise unless they were apprehensive that a split infinitive might get them barred from polite society. Well, I’ve had enough of this and I’m thrilled that, judging by the evidence amassed by the Lancaster researchers, so has the smartphone generation.

The prohibition on split infinitives is just a stylistic whim dreamt up by a pundit in the 1830s. Abandoning it will have no effect on standards of English except to improve them. It’s not just that this rule has been superseded by current practice: it’s never been a rule of English grammar at all. Real rules are observed regularities of usage like inflection for tense or number (singular or plural). The notion that you need wrench your prose to make it fit a fantastical, preposterous prejudice that was beaten (often literally) into generations of schoolchildren is at an end. Scholarship has killed it and I gratefully kick the corpse.

Literally Everything You’ll Ever Need To Know About Semantic Bleaching

A very special article about ‘very’ (& ‘actually’, ‘really’, ‘ultimately’…)

Many people complain about the use of literally in a way that seems, well, non-literal. This is because figurative use of the word (“I literally died laughing”) seems to contradict the meaning of the Latin root of literallylittera, which means “letter.”


‘Semantic bleaching’ is the reduction of a word’s intensity—as when ‘very’ (from the Latin ‘verus’, “true”) is used for emphasis (“there aren’t very many stock photos of semantic bleaching in action”).


The problem some people have with literally is that it’s a mushy adverb: if we removed it from our example and said “I died laughing,” the sentence is understood in precisely the same (non-literal) way—as hyperbole. Adding “literally” just adds emphasis; it’s the salt in the stew because the burden of meaning is on the other words (“died laughing”). Therefore, if “literally” is added and no change in meaning is the result, then ipso facto “literally” literally carries little meaning in this particular sentence.

This reduction of a word’s intensity is called “semantic bleaching,” and it’s a linguistic phenomenon that is more common than you may realize: when you say “Have a great day!” you don’t mean “Have a day that is large in spatial dimension,” and when you say “That movie was awesome” you don’t necessarily mean “That movie was expressive of awe or terror.” Both great and awesome (and fantasticamazingawful, and many others) have meanings that have become less literal over time. We could say that the problem with some uses of literally isn’t that it has lost some of its meaning, it’s that other uses haven’t lost the original meaning “by the letter” or “actually.” Both exist in frequent usage today.

Like literallyvery and really retain their original meanings but have added another. Very came to English from the French spoken by the Norman invaders, and the 13th-century word for “true” was verai, which compressed to vrai in modern French. The ultimate Latin root is verus, meaning “true.” We still use very to mean “truly” or “truthfully” (“that was a very brave act,” “I’m very sorry”), but it frequently conveys emphasis for which truth is neither particularly important nor in doubt (“the very last thing I packed,” “you’re very welcome,” “the food isn’t very good”). It’s an intensifier—a word that colors another but that, in this case, has little color itself.

The same is true of really: sometimes it means “in reality” (“they really are twins”) but it often confers simple emphasis (“I had a really great time”) or subjective judgment (“that’s a really good play”) that doesn’t depend on objective realness or reality. Ultimately originally meant “finally” or “at the end” (“they ultimately succeeded”) reflecting its Latin root ultimatus meaning “last” or “final,” but is now also often used to mean “eventually” (“we ultimately agreed to the deal”). Actually originally meant “in act or in fact” (“I don’t know what actually happened”) but is much weaker in meaning when it is used to emphasize that a statement is true or surprising (“we actually planned to leave early,” “the movie was actually pretty good”).

Sometimes it seems as though literally is held to an adverbial double standard that makes many people question the validity of its use as an intensifier, whereas other words with similar patterns of usage seem to pass without criticism. While it’s important to be careful about language use, it’s also important to acknowledge that language is flexible and words can have several different meanings.

Effective use of intensifiers means using them sparingly. Ultimately, it’s up to you.



U and non-UIs your vocabulary making you sound COMMON? Etiquette expert William Hanson reveals the lingo that gives away your social class (and the ‘T word’ is still banned)

  • William Hanson reveals the vocabulary to adopt to join the upper classes 
  • Has devised a list of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ words to reflect life in 2017 
  • Stresses that the word ‘toilet’ is still unacceptable among the upper classes

I can tell your social class just by the words you use.

This isn’t a new concept – it’s one that’s always been around and is intrinsic to British life.

It used to be that if you were to say ‘sofa’ rather than ‘settee’ you would be more Buckingham Palace than Crystal Palace.

If your evening meal was your ‘dinner’ then that was solid; and if you popped to the ‘lavatory’ rather than the ‘toilet’ then you would surely rise upwards through the social ranks.

William Hanson reveals the language you need to avoid if you wish to join the upper classes

William Hanson reveals the language you need to avoid if you wish to join the upper classes

But these words are now fairly commonplace for those wishing to better themselves. There are now many new words that can expose your humble origins should you let one slip in quality company.

This is what was termed ‘U and Non-U’ in the 1950s. U meaning ‘upper class’ and ‘Non-U’ meaning ‘non upper class’.

Prepare to hastily adjust your language, or relax in the comfort that you are already at the top of social Everest, with my updated U and Non-U list for 2017.


Since the 1950s English cuisine has had a total transformation but (for so many reasons) it is hard to imagine the Mitford set ever going into an exposed-brick ‘eatery’ (Non-U) and ordering smashed ‘avo’ on toast with a side of ‘beets’.

Call a spade a spade and do not contract just to make yourself look cool. You look anything but.


Alcohol is never ‘booze’.

Any ‘invite’ (Non-U) that promises ‘fizz on arrival’ should be very swiftly torn up before you enter into fits of hysteria as to why your name is on a list where people think you’d be enticed by such an offer.

When people write ‘fizz’ it is usually code for ‘you’re not getting Champagne’.

My thoughts on Prosecco and cava have been well documented before, but if your taste or budget doesn’t allow for the grander Champagne then don’t make it doubly worse by using a euphemism like ‘fizz’. Again, we return to the rule of calling a spade a spade.

Similarly, ‘vino’ is definitely out and Non-U, even if said ironically. Irony won’t save you here.


The world of coffee has become terribly Non-U. It is very rare to be able to order just a ‘black coffee’ and have a waiter or barman know exactly what you mean. That horrid drink dubbed the Americano is not what we meant, is it?

In the world of too much choice, make sure this does not affect your lexicon when inviting a friend out for a coffee.

Never say, ‘shall we meet next week for a latte?’ Your preference is a) irrelevant and also – to be really, really U – it should be nothing but a black coffee that you order, anyway.

The biggest indicator of someone's social background according to William is whether or not they use the word toilet 

The biggest indicator of someone’s social background according to William is whether or not they use the word toilet

Additionally, the more instruction a person gives to the ‘barista’ (Non-U) the more lower class they are.


God Bless America

The influence of America and the global brand-obsessed culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to modern class language use and abuse.

To be a U speaker please know you are not going to ‘catch a movie’; you are going to ‘see a film’.

You do not greet someone (or start an email) with ‘hey’. It is what horses eat, not a salutation.

When there is nothing left on your plate you have ‘finished’, you are not ‘done’.


In 1954 a little-known linguistics professor, Alan S. C. Ross published a study in a Finnish academic journal revealing the language choices of the British upper classes.

This would have gone largely unnoticed if it wasn’t for author and socialite Nancy Mitford popularising the list a few years later in 1956.

It caused somewhat of a furore in British life when published. Some U speakers were horrified their silent language shibboleths had been exposed and some Non-U speakers were thrilled and began studiously swatting up on what they should an should not be saying.

But seventy years later some of the words on Mitford’s list seem terribly old fashioned and have changed meaning.

Take ‘wireless’ for example, which she said was the must-say word over ‘radio’. Today, ‘wireless’ means something totally different, and even the most traditional upper crust of Brits have abandoned calling mirrors ‘looking glasses’.

And never request that black coffee by saying ‘can I get’ as you aren’t actually fetching anything – the waiter is doing the work. Ask ‘may I please have’ instead.

As someone once said: ‘there is no such thing as American English. There is English and then there are mistakes.’


Temper your language when social climbing to monitor your use of brand names.

What brand and model of something you have is totally irrelevant, so do not show off by telling colleagues you need to answer a call on your ‘iPhone’ or reply to an email on your ‘Blackberry’.

When you arrive home that evening and you cannot be bothered to cook then you will be ordering a takeaway (U) and not a Deliveroo (Non-U). The choice of food delivery app doesn’t matter. It’s still a takeaway.

If you leave the house after dinner and need a taxi (U) then call it that – an Uber (Non-U) is just a type of taxi.

Using brand names is showing off and uppers generally don’t like that.


The educated graduated from ‘university’ (U). The rest graduated from ‘uni’ (Non-U).

Make sure that your first or second class degree isn’t sullied and undermined by using an ugly contraction like ‘uni’.

‘Universities’ have ‘terms’. ‘Unis’ have ‘semesters’.

The T word is still banned

Whereas some words have been pruned from the 1950s list, some of them still count as silent language shibboleths that can be used to determine someone’s social background: the biggest one being ‘toilet’, which is still very, very Non-U.

Despite left-leaning magazines like Tatler deliberately trying to wind everyone up by proclaiming we can now all say ‘toilet’ without consequence, there are still many PLU who would rather give birth to a chair than utter the clunky word for what is actually a ‘lavatory’. (Loo is fine, too, but lavatory is the most correct.)

For those who don’t know, historically your ‘toilet’ was your appearance, your makeup; hence your ‘toiletries bag’. The porcelain thing you use is the lavatory. So toilet is not only an ugly word but also factually incorrect.

When making a documentary for BBC Radio 4 I took issue with Tatler’s editor by telling her that many of us were livid – seething – that they had abused their position. Apparently, taking this stance makes me a ‘moron’ (her words). Well, I may be a moron but I am a moron with standards.

U and non-U 2


U and non-U English usage, with “U” standing for “upper class”, and “non-U” representing the aspiring middle classes, was part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in Britain in the 1950s. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, who in many instances used the same words as the upper classes. For this reason, the different vocabularies often can appear quite counter-intuitive: the middle classes prefer “fancy” or fashionable words, even neologisms and often euphemisms, in attempts to make themselves sound more refined (“posher than posh”), while the upper classes in many cases stick to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as, confident in the security of their social position, they have no need to seek to display refinement.[1]
The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, professor of linguistics in the University of Birmingham. He coined the terms “U” and “non-U” in an article, on the differences that social class makes in English language usage, published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal. Though his article included differences in pronunciation and writing styles, it was his remark about differences of vocabulary that received the most attention.

The English author Nancy Mitford was alerted and immediately took up the usage in an essay, “The English Aristocracy”, which Stephen Spender published in his magazine Encounter in 1954. Mitford provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes, unleashing an anxious national debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery, which involved a good deal of soul-searching that itself provided fuel for the fires. The essay was reprinted, with contributions by Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, and others, as well as a “condensed and simplified version”[2] of Ross’ original article, as Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy in 1956. Betjeman’s poem How to Get on in Society concluded the collection.

The issue of U and non-U could have been taken lightheartedly, but at the time many took it very seriously. This was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in Britain of the 1950s, recently emerged from post-war austerities. In particular the media used it as a launch pad for many stories, making much more out of it than was first intended. In the meantime, the idea that one might “improve oneself” by adopting the culture and manner of one’s “betters”, instinctively assented to before World War II, was now greeted with resentment.

Some of the terms and the ideas behind them were largely obsolete by the late 20th century, when, in the United Kingdom, reverse snobbery led younger members of the British upper and middle classes to adopt elements of working class speech (see: Estuary English and Mockney). Yet many, if not most, of the differences remain very much current, and therefore perfectly usable as class indicators.[5]

The dramatist Alan Bennett entitled a TV documentary set in a northern hotel Dinner at Noon, which largely consisted of him musing on social class.[6]