LADY VIOLET & U
The class differences the show reveals aren’t just about big houses and posh accents. As Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (aka Maggie Smith), would undoubtedly delight in telling you, vocabulary can give your status away the moment you open your mouth, a topic famously elaborated on by the novelist Nancy Mitford in a 1954 essay about the characteristics that define the English aristocracy, including the way they talk—“U” versus “non-U,” where “U” stands for “upper.” So what are the words that distinguish PLUs—“people like us, dear”—from those in the servants’ hall, or farther afield?
Starting where it really matters (even if Cousin Isobel Crawley tries to pretend it doesn’t): the British upper classes themselves love to imagine that they’re the ones who call a spade a spade rather than resorting to genteel euphemisms. “Wealthy” is what they call Mrs. Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) back in Rhode Island. “Rich” is why Lord Grantham wed his American heiress and what Lady Mary Crawley is supposed to marry. Someone’s got to pay for all those bouillon spoons and four changes of outfits a day.
A beautiful home? Don’t say that to Lord Grantham unless you think Downton’s a place where wounded servicemen convalesce (wait a minute—it was for a while!). Nancy Mitford: “non-U—‘they have a lovely home’; U—‘they’ve a very nice house.’” And if you’re invited for a visit, don’t say you’re going to “Downton Abbey,” which might suggest you’re not familiar with the place or, worse, trying to impress your listener. You’re going to “Downton,” and, moreover, “down to Downton,” since the country is always “down” and London is always “up.”
Confronted with this foreign expression, Cousin Violet famously asked, “What is a ‘weekend’?” We all assume that for someone who never worked a day in her life, the concept of the weekend has no meaning; but of course the “country-house weekend” was always there, just labeled more literally. By the time war broke out in 1914, “weekend” was making inroads with the younger generation, but when that invitation was issued for a spot of huntin’, shootin’ or fishin’ (old-fashioned U-pronunciation), you were asked for “Friday to Monday.” This, however, probably died out at about the same time as Cousin Violet.
If you’re a man, you’ll need one for your Friday-to-Monday at Downton, and possibly white tie as well, depending on how formal the dinners are. (“Tuxedo” is never used except in connection with the WASPy enclave of Tuxedo Park.) During the kerfuffle caused by the recent incident of Matthew Crawley’s mysteriously burned jacket, bringing considerable shame on Mr. Carson, the butler, it was naturally Violet who said to her son, Lord Grantham, “I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter,” owing to his wearing black tie at a white tie event (in solidarity with the deprived Matthew).
On your not-a-weekend visit to Downton, it’s possible that Mr. Carson or Anna will volunteer to show you “the geography of the house,” which basically means where the loo is (en suite bathrooms not being common in English country houses in the 1920s and even now considered an unnecessary indulgence by some). But if you have to, just ask firmly for the lavatory (“loo” is a relatively modern U-sage). “Rest room” and “powder room” are also non-U, so if the thought of being so direct makes you shudder you could conceivably resort to asking where you can wash your hands.
A pardon is the get-out-of-jail-free card we wish the King would give poor Mr. Bates. In any other context it’s definitively non-U. For a less abrupt reply to a misheard remark, “What did you say?” is acceptable. And the only proper response to burps and farts: dead silence. Such things cease to exist if ignored.
Die/pass (on, away)
And, finally, as Cousin Violet responded tartly to someone’s lament for a loved one’s “passing”: “I suppose you mean he died.” No U-phemisms!—TAMARA GLENNY