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The Wikipedia page on U and non-U English describes the nature of these two "sociolects" and gives a number of examples in a table. What I find intriguing is that most of this examination of the difference between the practical vocabulary of the middle and upper classes occurred in 1950s Britain/England (when Ross and Milford wrote about it). A great deal of time has passed since then, so I'm curious if anyone (scholar or otherwise) has examined these sociolects in the present day.

I am personally a middle-class Brit, with very limited interaction with the upper classes (perhaps just a bit at university), and furthermore, since the BBC and the like stopped insisting on "Queen's English" (both the accent and arguably the use of U English) in the 80s/90s, it has become harder to judge, I reckon. Perhaps Queen's Speeches can still give the everyman a glimpse into U English though! In any case, the table on the aforementioned Wikipedia page gives some pairs of words that I can clearly identify still have a U/non-U distinction (with the upper-middle classes these days often using the U form), but also some where I am tempted to say the non-U form of previous decades has become the U form. Here are some of those developments that I posit:

  • Looking-glass -> Mirror
  • Ice -> Ice cream
  • Wireless -> Radio
  • Schoolmaster -> Teacher (perhaps with the former U word still used for teachers of a higher rank at a public school?)

In brief, I would be interested in any essays/works confirming some changes like the above (or even personal experience), as well as additional examples.

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    The queen's accent has become less prestigious - compare her speech today versus her coronation speech. Sep 30, 2019 at 16:23
  • @marcellothearcane True, though it's still the RP/refined/"posh" you'll find anywhere. Just that everyone's accent has softened a bit. Also, I'm not really interested in that here — I'm interested in U vs. non-U vocabulary. :-)
    – Noldorin
    Sep 30, 2019 at 16:49
  • Whoever voted to close: you NEED to specify why you think it's too broad, as to any sane person reading this question, it's quite specific indeed.
    – Noldorin
    Sep 30, 2019 at 16:50
  • Also, is RP (the pronunciation) more associated with U (the vocab)? Also, which is U and which non-U? The left hand side sounds, to me (AmE) simply 19th (not particularly BrE, U or not)
    – Mitch
    Sep 30, 2019 at 17:04
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    Fun fact, that's all! I haven't VTCed, for the record Sep 30, 2019 at 17:14

2 Answers 2

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From the list given by Wikipedia, I would say that the "U" terms bicycle/bike, vegetables and jam are now standard, as are the "Non-U" terms jack, ice cream and mirror.

When I was a child in the '50s, we said wireless, but I thought everybody did in those days (even though the BBC's listings magazine has always been Radio Times).

We weren't at all posh, but we said lavatory. I've read (in fiction) of children being told off for saying toilet, but that never happened to me, it just wasn't the term we used. Nowadays, of course, it's standard for signs in public places, since we stopped using the euphemism public convenience.

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  • I was surprised to see greens equated with vegetables in the Wikipedia page - do you know if that was normal? I've always assumed greens meant just vegetables that are literally green.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 1, 2019 at 15:11
  • @nnnnnn Yes, green's was a common middle-class and working-class term for vegetables even when I was growing up in the 90s, though it was far from ubiquitous.
    – Noldorin
    Oct 1, 2019 at 17:33
  • Thanks for your answer Kate, I agree from my experience. I can certainly believe you use "wireless" growing up the 50s, though I find it hard to believe even the upper class use the word now to refer to the radio. Lavatory is probably still used among the upper class these days (I'm intrigued you used it in former years though)... whereas I'm confident both the upper and middle classes most often use "loo" informally these days, and I suppose you agree?
    – Noldorin
    Oct 1, 2019 at 17:35
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Having traveled extensively in England in the 70s and early 80s, I became aware of U and Non-U as a copy of the book was typically in the WC of a private house for ready reference. And I learned that "serviette" which had been considered U as "napkin" was too close to nappy for comfort, was fading and nappies could actually be called diapers. I learned from a particularly language-conscious hostess that curtain is preferable to drapery.

From my childhood here being reminded to observe my hostess or host at a dinner or luncheon table if I was concerned about proper etiquette. (In England, I learned that asparagus is a finger food---and logically so!) Among my high school graduation gifts from parents was a copy of Emily Post's "Blue Book," with my mother's admonition that I was now likely to receive invitations from people whose homes had staff and I must be knowledgeable about tips to place in small envelopes with my name card.

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