Your class English words

Posted by on November 28, 2011

Here is the third (following the first and second) in our monthly instalment of a question answered by our wonderful and ever-growing group of guest bloggers. The question we’ve asked this month was:

What word in English is loaded with the most ‘class’ content for you?

This was a bit of a difficult one to answer (and some of you told me as much in no uncertain terms, thank you!). But we got some great answers anyway:

Good question! I don’t pay much attention to class, except when I’m examining it for reasons of research or curiosity, but one word that occasionally sets off alarm bells for me is proper. I find it often bundled with misguided presumptions about what is or isn’t correct, with the predictable bias towards standard English and a corresponding mistrust of non-standard forms of expression.
So ain’t ain’t proper, regional idioms aren’t proper either, and even pronouncing either a certain way isn’t proper. People who subscribe to these linguistic judgements without making any allowance for social and geographic context and register sometimes hold analogous ideas about how people should dress, eat, and behave. One way – their way – is “proper”; other ways are vulgar, uncouth, and perfectly beastly.
There is no absolute “proper” English: what’s proper is whatever is appropriate to the circumstances. I recommend, as an antidote or inoculation, repeat visits to the Proper English Foundation.
Stan Carey from Sentence first

The English word that I think has the most class bias is dependent, which regularly is applied to low-income people but rarely to wealthier people. Media reports and blogs derisively state that poor people are “dependent” upon minuscule government programs such as food stamps (recently renamed SNAP benefits), but rarely point out that most people obtain such help for relatively short periods of time when they are down on their luck. Conversely, when billionaires receive massive corporate welfare payments or huge special tax breaks to support them, the word dependent is rarely used, and instead they are still routinely touted as “self-made” even (as in the case of Donald Trump) if they inherited their original fortunes. While our use of language values “teamwork” in football and military maneuvers, we like to give ourselves the false impression that each of us made it or failed on our own. However, there is some push-back of late to that notion, and even some billionaires now willingly admit how much they owe society, including Warren Buffett, who said: “I personally think that society is responsible for a significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”
Joel Berg from New York City Coalition Against Hunger

It’s easy to get po-faced about this but the worst offender is chav. Many who are extremely fastidious when it comes to describing ethnicity, have no such scruples when it comes to expressing their class prejudice.
On a lighter note, the word footie (for football) always sounds like an impostor to me. It is trying far too hard to sound proletarian – and I should know as I’ve worked down a mine since I was eleven …
Kieran McGovern from ESOL eBooks

Well, quite simply teacher!
Educationalists may aspire to a ‘classless’ society, but the wealth of English words for teachers betrays a persistent class-consciousness. I started out as a teaching assistant – the lowest of the low. At the same time, I moonlighted as a private tutor to children from leafy suburbs, definitely a step up the class ladder, though still far below the status of the masters, dons, lecturers and supervisors who taught me at school and university. On arriving in France however I was delighted to learn I had joined the ranks of the professional classes; no longer a mere teacher, I became a trainer (not that the pay seemed to justify the distinction). Since then I have been called an instructor, (a step down I feel) a monitor (a bit back to school, but a better class of school, don’t you think?), a facilitator (mixed feelings on that one) and nowadays, a coach (more the distinctly upper-class life-coach rather than the more working-class football variety, I think – but funny how often salaries seem to be inversely proportional to class). Yet the zenith of my teaching achievements was reached when, travelling in Eastern Europe, I was addressed as Professor, an accolade as undeserved as it was satisfying finally to hobnob with the academic elite!
John Allison from John’s Words and Music

The pronunciation of the letter H as ‘haitch‘ is no longer the great class divide in Australia that it used to be, but I still find people who are amazed that I say ‘haitch’. When I explain to them that this is normal Irish pronunciation they are equally surprised. I had no idea there was a problem with ‘haitch’ until I emigrated to Australia. My question is why do dictionaries provide ‘zed’ and ‘zee’ as alternatives for Z but not ‘haitch’ along with ‘aitch’?
Dymphna Lonergan from Flinders University, Australia

I’ll never forget when I asked for a serviette in my local fish and chip shop back home in Scotland. The guy behind the counter looked at me with an expression that bordered between utter contempt and genuine disbelief. And as he didn’t say anything, I actually repeated it.
Clearly the correct word to use in this sort of social environment is napkin. A lesson learned, but I remain baffled as to why I was laughed out of the shop, simply for adding a bit of French flavour to proceedings.
There’s a time and a place to use certain words. Requesting a serviette in a chip shop full of locals is not recommended.
Finn Kirland

My suggestion is civilian. There is a view (not necessarily one I share) that the UK’s traditional class system has been replaced by a three-level hierarchy that goes: chavs (at the bottom), everyone else (in the middle), and celebrities (at the top). I agree with Kieran McGovern about the unpleasant way chav is used: in his book on the subject (Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class) Owen Jones describes chav as ‘a hate-filled word’. As for celebrities, some people treat them like royalty and aspire to be like them, while many celebs (or slebs) behave as if they are a different species. In line with this new class system, the word civilians is apparently used (disparagingly or pityingly) by celebrities to refer to the rest of us. Grrr.
Michael Rundell

Aside from the word grand, which must be accompanied by a hand flourish outwards indicating twinkling lights and diamonds in a field of all tomorrow’s parties, a better answer for me is the word yah. Being South African saying yah for ‘yes’ is the norm, perhaps because ja (pronounced ‘yah’) is the Afrikaans word for ‘yes’. But when I came to England I couldn’t help but notice that saying yah had a strange effect on the people around me. They would sort of squirm, or whince and slighlty avert their eyes (this was particularly obvious when hunt-sabbing, or getting milk from our local in Bethnal Green, for example). Bless the English, though: no-one ever said anything directly, nobody told me yah was posh and that if I was a bloke I’d probably be getting a beating right here, right now. Twenty years later, although I get it now and always say yeah or yup or something less Made in Chelsea, am I right in thinking that yah is no longer quite as offensive as it was twenty years ago? I am testing this out and so far … no squirming.
Laine Redpath Cole

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