Wealhtheow's Reviews > Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy

Noblesse Oblige by Nancy Mitford
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Apr 17, 08

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bookshelves: british-history, sociology
Read in April, 2008

Squashed between fat books of grammar I found Noblesse Oblige, a set of essays on English colloquialisms and class in the twentieth century. The Hon. Mrs. Peter Rodd (aka Nancy Mitford)'s sharp little essay on "the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy" caused a flurry of letters and debate, some of which is published in this volume. Mitford set down a by-no-means comprehensive list of grammar, vocabulary, and modes of thought as Upper-Class or Not Upper-Class. In the 1950s, at least, members of the English nobility avoided euphemism, abbreviations and acronyms, while simultaneously using phrases that only had meaning if you already knew the people or place involved. She is followed by Alan S.C. Ross's turgid essay on "sociological inguistics," which was not worth slogging though, as it basically is just a list of how to pronounce vowels. There is a footnote per sentence, which makes it hard going. Evelyn Waugh apparently felt the need to stick his pointed little nose into the debate, and wrote a thirty-six page letter telling Mitford in the most patronizing language possible that she was a jumped-up pretender and not very smart, to boot. Since Mitford has facts and figures from Burke's and the College of Heralds, whereas Waugh has pithy anecdotes, I can't trust him much. Anyone who refers to a published author repeatedly as "a cutie" or "endearing" for daring to examine the society in which she lives, or who spends AN ENTIRE PAGE reminding his readers that "Nancy"'s father only succeeded to the peerage when she was 12, thus negating all her points because she's so very new to the peerage, is just not someone I can bear.
Luckily, Waugh's would-be razor wit is followed by "Strix"'s essay on colloquialisms, slang, and how language shifts over generations and geography. I think zie brings up the best points of all--that gentlemen have "a relish for incongruity": they love to sprinkle their speech with ironic snips of lower-class slang, they call a battle "a party" but a dull party "a disaster," and they play with understatements vs. overstatements. Actual events or people are talked about in an understated way, whereas feelings (petrified, nauseated, firghtful) are overstated. "Strix" also ends with a fantastic paragraph: "All tradition is bequeathed, however distrustfully, to the young. The upper-class young have not been dragooned about the use of words in the way their parents were; and they have ingested a richer, more variegated slice of the marzipan of English usage than reached, in the ordinary way of business, the gizzards of their elders. If they are sensible and civic, they will try to iron out these pregnant but elusive nuances and strive for a clear, classless medium of communication in which all say 'Pardon?' and none say 'What?,' every ball is a dance and every man's wife is 'the' wife. I shall be surprised, and disappointed, if they make the slightest endeavour to impoverish our extraordinary national life by doing anything of the sort."
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