class English language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

Pass the serviettes: dictionaries and class

My colleague Finn Kirkland has mentioned his problems with the word serviette. I have a battered copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary dating back to the 1920s, which includes this entry:

serviette n. (vulg.) table-napkin

Note the ‘vulg.’ label (short for ‘vulgar’). The dictionary’s Introduction explains:

“This qualification implies that the use of the word or sense … is due either to want of education or to want of manners.”

Those were the days! Serviette is one of several words that appear in the satirical poem ‘How to get on in society‘ by the late John Betjeman. Betjeman was a connoisseur of the intricacies of the English class system, whose complexities are well-illustrated by George Orwell’s remark that he was born into ‘what you might describe as the loweruppermiddle class’. Betjeman’s poem is full of words which were thought to be typical of aspiring members of the middle classes, including: lounge (we’re supposed to say sitting room), toilet (the approved term is lavatory), sweet (the noun, used to mean ‘dessert’, but the preferred upper-class word is pudding), couch (say sofa), and of course serviette (sorry, Finn!). The poem appeared in a collection of writings called Noblesse Oblige, published in the 1950s and edited by the famously snobbish Nancy Mitford. The same book introduced the concept of  ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ English, where ‘U’ stands for upper class, and it includes a handy glossary of ‘U’ words and phrases. Interestingly, Mitford’s target was not ‘the lower orders’ – who knew their place – but middle-class people whose vocabulary choices reflected an anxiety to sound ‘posh’. They would use words like preserve, sufficient, pass away, or Pardon?, where the upper and working classes – who shared a preference for plain speaking – would say jam, enough, die, or What?.

Today’s dictionaries generally shy away from assigning class markers to words. The Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, has a helpful usage note at its entry for innit, which accepts that this is a word that ‘induces rage and consternation in traditionalists’, but goes on to give a calm, corpus-based account of the word’s use in contemporary English. The contrast, in other words, is between a prescriptive position (‘traditionalists’) and a descriptive one, and there is no suggestion that people who use innit are in want of education or manners.

The so-called ‘Academy of Contemporary English‘, on the other hand, has no such qualms, and its website frequently uses words like ‘ignorant’ and ‘illiterate’ when describing everyday usage. A section of the site called ‘The People’s English’ sounds promising (surely anything prefixed ‘The People’s’ must be a good thing?), but it is devoted to a critique of ‘the absolutely appalling level of English used by “ordinary” people’. With its references to ‘the populace’ (‘the standard of English among the populace gives cause for grave concern’) and its obvious disappointment that ‘people who should know better’ don’t ‘set an example’, this is one place where the old class structures familiar to Nancy Mitford are apparently still in place.

But if the ‘Academy’ (like its parent the Queen’s English Society) looks a little out of touch, it is clear from this month’s ‘class English‘ posts (and Comments thereon) that the way people speak and the words they use remain potent markers of class. What has changed since the 1950s is the relative status of different sociolects: as Dan Clayton and John Wells both show, working-class speech can have its own prestige, while there is a degree of pressure on the upper classes to adopt more demotic modes of speech. Two shining examples of this trend are Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Blair was educated at a leading public school then at Oxford, but was famous for his glottal stops. Bush came from a wealthy New England family (his grandfather was a Senator in Connecticut), but spent most of his political life pretending to be just a ‘good old boy‘ from Texas.

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Michael Rundell


  • Consider ‘serviette’ forever stricken from my vocabulary. I’ll simply have to learn to fight that inner desire to sound posh…

  • I beg your pardon, but shall we then be meek and mend our ways at every bidding of the degenerated upper-class’ ‽ I understand this phenomenon is partly due to either inverted snobbish or neglectful attitude, or even a sense of always pardoned impropriety.

    I do not see how the time-honoured ‘pardon’ can be replaced by ‘sorry’ still less by ‘what’,

    The latest OED does not label ‘serviette’ as vulgar.

    Also, OED shows that in these senses ‘sorry’ dates from the first half and second half of the twentieth century. See.

    add [1] d ellipt. for I am sorry. colloq. (a) Expressing apology or regret.

       1914 G. B. Shaw Fanny’s First Play 167 Sorry. Never heard of him.    1923 Radio Times 28 Sept. 19/2 No! sorry, I thought you were Cardiff.    1938 E. Waugh Scoop ii. ii. 157, I will say you’re a quick worker. Sorry to barge in on the tender scene.    1954 W. Faulkner Fable 76 He said, ‘All right. Sorry. I didn’t know you had a wife.’    1982 W. J. Burley Wycliffe’s Wild-Goose Chase i. 17 ‘Sorry to bother you on a Sunday morning‥.’ ‘Think nothing of it’.

    (b) Interrogatively, requesting an interlocutor to repeat words that the speaker failed to catch or to understand.

       1972 T. Stoppard Jumpers II. 62 Miss Moore, is there anything you wish to say at this stage? Dotty (in the sense of ‘Pardon?’): Sorry? Bones: My dear, we are all sorry—.    1978 P. Howard Weasel Words vii. 46 For its part ‘sorry’ is coming to mean: ‘Please say that again; I did not hear you.’

  • Serviette was an Americanism, so i thought. Napkin makes me think of a cloth and serviette makes me think of paper. Napkin is a really cute word and it is very nice to have a cloth instead of a crummy bit of paper. It does feel nice to eat with proper cloth napkins and it feels very civilised. Today many people use kitchen towel. some of them are thicker and better than paper napkins.

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