Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 6 March 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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According to that very annoying programme Woman’s Hour (one minute being militantly gynaecological, the next giving recipes for butternut-squash soup), a mother complained to a school that allowed her son to say toilet instead of lavatory. A vox pop discovered more people in the street were at home with toilet than with lavatory, which one respondent identified as a word used only by those unfamiliar with English.

Then they got on to napkin against serviette. Here, I think, one cannot ignore the fact that most people do not use table napkins. Perhaps there is an idea that serviette more properly applies to insubstantial paper objects. Certainly in Spain every bar has its dispenser of little paper servilletas. Even though the word has been in use in Spain since the 16th century, it is criticised as an importation from France.

The locus classicus for class-markers in English is Alan Ross’s essay on U and Non-U in Noblesse Oblige (subtitled An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy and published in 1956). But 30 years earlier H.W. Fowler had covered some of the same ground in Modern English Usage under the entry ‘genteelism’. By this he meant the substitution of ‘a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd’ in place of an ‘ordinary natural word’.

Oddly enough, after talking of soiled lips, Fowler, or perhaps his reviser Ernest Gowers, damns soiled linen in favour of dirty clothes. I cannot see that soiled linen is particularly genteel; in fact linen suggests underclothes and shirting susceptible to that brilliant advertiser’s word understains.

Fowler shares with the contributors to Noblesse Oblige a dislike of lounge (sitting room), serviette and sufficient. (‘Is trifle sufficient for sweet?’ asked John Betjeman’s poem.) Other judgments are more surprising. To close the door is a genteelism for to shut it, he says. (Characters in television soaps are always shouting ‘Shut it!’, but that is usually the gob, trap or, as an anti-genteelism puts it, cake-hole.)

Other Fowler genteelisms (with normal words in parentheses) are assist (help), bosom (breast), couch (sofa), inquire (ask), desire (want), expectorate (spit), hard of hearing (deaf), help (servant), lady dog (bitch) and require (want). I have never heard anyone say lady dog seriously, and both help and servant are rare. But hard of hearing seems like a forerunner of those terms (visually impaired, with learning difficulties, African American) that we are expected to adopt as they come into politically genteel usage.