What do you call the meal you eat in the evening? Is it tea, supper, or dinner? And in the middle of the day, do you eat lunch, luncheon, or dinner? Do you use a serviette or a napkin to wipe the crumbs from your mouth? And do you (excuse the indelicacy) go to the loo, the toilet, or the lavatory? When you ask, politely, for something, do you say “May I have…?” or “Can I have…?” Do you relax with a TV programme in the lounge, the living room, or the drawing room?
The minefield of lexical choice in these cases is tied up in the old class system. The upper classes used to take luncheon while the rest of us had lunch; having tea as a main evening meal was very much a working class word choice. But aspirational parents would encourage their children to adopt more genteel ways of speaking as part of the process of climbing the social ladder. Even if you weren’t actually “middle class”, you could at least talk like someone who was, which would represent some sort of social progress.
These days, we like to think that the class system is behind us, and that we live in a classless society with equality of opportunity for all, but there are still divisions within society that are identifiable by the way we speak.
This month, we’ll be discussing class English here at Macmillan Dictionary blog, and we’ll be looking at the various ways in which language and class are intertwined.
If you want to do some homework before tomorrow’s opening post on the topic, have a look at this clip in which representatives of three classes discuss how they relate to each other.Email this Post