How to be Sophisticated

Everyone wants to be sophisticated, but only the rich can decide what constitutes sophistication. Rich people are stylish, but designers for the rich scour the haunts of the poor to find inspiration for new styles. What follows suggests that the rich can even decide what words to use & when the non-rich catch on, the rich change the rules again.

Lyall, Sarah. 2007. “Why Can’t the English Just Give Up That Class Folderol?” New York Times (26 April).

“Nancy Mitford’s famous list of “U” and “non-U” words — the “U” refers to upper class — in 1954 was both a frivolity, as she considered it, and a more or less accurate reflection of the customs of the time. The upper classes generally did say “sofa,” “rich” and “jam,” as Mitford wrote, and not “settee,” “wealthy” and “preserves”.”

“Many of her “non-U” words had been adopted in the Victorian era by lower-class people striving to seem refined, said John E. Joseph, a professor of applied linguistics at Edinburgh University. These included words with French origins — “serviette” for napkin, for instance, and “toilet,” which came from “toilette.” The upper class shunned the words as arriviste affectations.”

3 comments so far

  1. Martin Langeland on

    Jargon is always power.
    Only fellows of the secret society can communicate, those that do not belong are shown instantly by their word choice or accent — everybody, save me, has one!

    Once I looked for a supplier of copper wire that was square in cross section. I called every distributor in the state and met complete incomprehension until at last one old timer took pity on me. He explained that the kind of wire I wanted was called ‘magnet’ wire and was made to wind around the core of electric motors. Unfortunately his company didn’t carry it. Several of the outfits that couldn’t supply ‘wire with a square cross section’ were quite happy to supply ‘magnet wire’ when called again.
    Language identifies guild members as it speeds essential communication. But it also excludes and obfuscates.
    –ml

  2. Ele on

    I think you need to look up the definition of sophistication.

  3. hkyson on

    Language is often used as a way of distinguishing in groups from outsiders. Besides the changing vocabulary of the rich you have teenage slang, which probably changes even more rapidly.

    hkyson > Harleigh Kyson Jr.


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