Seven new categories of social class: How the markers have changed

Life was simpler when society was divided into Upper, Middle and Working, and meant landowners, doctors and shopkeepers

John Walsh
Thursday 04 April 2013 09:57 BST

The revelation that British people occupy not three but seven classes has thrown a spanner in the sociological works.

A survey, by Manchester University and the London School of Economics along with the BBC Lab UK, established that we can be Elite (the new aristocracy: opera-going, stately home-visiting, home-owning, wedge-saving), the Established Middle Class (well-educated, home-owning, theatre-going), the Technical Middle Class (lots of money but uncultured and without friends in high places), and four levels of working-class, from “affluent” to “precarious”.

But how do you tell them apart? Life was simpler when society was divided into Upper, Middle and Working, and meant landowners, doctors and shopkeepers. When, in the 20th century, the classes fragmented into sub-sets of “skilled working” and “lower-middle” (George Orwell famously defined his background as “lower-upper-middle”) things became fuzzy: the “lower-middles” aspired to be respectable and used “genteel” language; the “upper-middles” aspired to be toffs and tried to sound like milords.

Into this minefield walked Nancy Mitford in 1956 with her distinctions between “U” and “Non-U” behaviour and language. Her friend Alan Ross offered a guide for the socially dyslexic: non-posh people think they should say “greens” and “serviette” and “luncheon” and “lovely home” and “I felt ill” and “mental” and “pardon” and “teacher” whereas the truly posh said, respectively, “vegetables” and “napkin” and “lunch” and “nice house” and “I felt sick” and “mad” and “what?” and “teacher.”

Yesterday, some amusing commentators tweeted to suggest that the main class signifiers are whether you buy hardbacks or e-books, and whether you stick letters or party invitations into the mirror on your mantelpiece. But what about the language we use? I suspect some old U-and-non-U rules still apply. Saying “toilet” instead of “loo”, “bubbly” instead of “champagne” or “Well, this is very civilised” when sitting in a bar, (instead of “Well, this is ok…”) may cause the eyebrows of the Elite to rise superciliously.

Prudish circumlocutions have mostly disappeared, so saying “private parts” instead of “minge” is social death. A new horror of management-speak means that “going forward” and “in terms of…” and “on a daily basis…” and “I myself would prefer…” are anathema. There’s a beady-eyed Elitist pedantry that fixes like a death-ray on phrases like “the enormity of his good works” and “the plot is centred around…” and “are you inferring that…?” And any usage that suggests the user isn’t wholly au fait with modern technology and technospeak is right out: so no talk of “the interweb” or “this Bookface thing” and no cries of “lolz!” or (from your Auntie) “Can you get it up on the Google?”

That’s where the would-be Elite are today: eschewing all hints of cosiness, coyness, corporatism, semantic fogginess or cyberspatial ignorance. We’ve come a long way from worrying about whether to say “lounge” or “living-room”.

Scene stealers

A New Zealand filmgoer has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about a trailer for the Tom Cruise film Jack Reacher. It featured, he said, a scene involving an exploding cliff that he’d looked forward to seeing on the big screen – but when he attended a cinema screening, no cliff-based detonation was apparent. Paramount Pictures apologised and offered him a refund.

What amazes me is that someone should complain about a modern movie trailer that’s left something out. I’m constantly enraged by trailers that don’t just leave you tantalised with hints and intrigued to see the film’s outcome, but give you the whole story – clinches, killings, emotional reunions, the lot. It ruined The Impossible and The Paperboy and a dozen others for me in the past 12 months. Trailer editors: can’t you learn to, as Delboy used to say, leave it out?

Twitter: @JohnHenryWalsh

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