April 18, 2007

Never tell the Queen you're pleased to meet her

Want your daughter to marry an heir to the British throne? Make sure you never utter the word "toilet" or "pardon?" and for heaven's sake don't say "Pleased to meet you" to the Queen. At least that's the take-home message imparted by the British tabloids after Prince William's recent breakup with Kate Middleton. The problem, according to the tabloids, was Kate's decidedly un-posh mother Carole. She was found guilty of such crimes as public gum-chewing, though it was really her language use that raised eyebrows.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Carole Middleton, who runs a party supply business with her husband and made enough to buy a $2-million house in Berkshire and send her daughter to prestigious Marlborough College, said "toilet" instead of "lavatory." She said "pardon" when she couldn't hear what someone had just said. ("What?" is more posh.)
When she met Queen Elizabeth II, William's grandmother, she said, "Pleased to meet you." Well, columnists wanted to know, who wasn't happy to meet the queen? "Hello, ma'am," was what was called for.
Within days, the tabloids, which by and large sympathized with the deposed princess-to-be, had rendered their anguished verdicts: "Kate was too middle class," the Mail on Sunday pronounced sadly. "Not posh enough for royals," fumed the Mirror. By Tuesday, the papers were publishing "cut-and-keep" guides on "how to be posh," and the Telegraph had a take-at-home quiz on "what class are you?"

The Guardian and the Independent provide further insight into the persistence of class-based shibboleths in British society, more than a half century after the famous exegeses of U and non-U English usage by the philologist Alan Ross and the novelist Nancy Mitford. As Mark Liberman observed last year, such matters are, to most Americans, "roughly as familiar as the interpretation of West African scarification patterns."

[Update: Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe already blogged about this on the Ideas Section's Brainiac blog, linking to relevant posts on Lynne Murphy's Separated by a Common Language.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 18, 2007 02:37 PM