A recent conversation led me to the inescapable conclusion that I might, possibly, be a bit of a snob. I hadn’t even considered the possibility until I dated someone who, towards the end of supper in a particularly nice place, asked me if I wanted a “sweet”. My reaction to this word was a violent recoil and an outbreak of hives, quickly followed by a no less violent urge to explain that the only correct way to describe what he wanted to order was “pudding”. (“Dessert” traditionally refers to the fruit course which comes after the main course and before pudding, and if you insist on using it in a wider context, dessert can only be sweet, whereas a pudding can be either sweet or savoury: ergo, steak and kidney pudding or – as here – sticky toffee pudding.)
Of course, I immediately felt awful, and kept my thoughts to myself, but it got me thinking: When it comes to language, am I really an unmitigated snob?
I like to think that as a writer, I have an excuse for being particular about words, but I suspect this is untrue. More likely, I want to justify the fact that I cringe every time I hear the wrong word, in the wrong place, and would happily substitute the sound of nails scraping down a blackboard. I have much the same reaction to “settee” for “sofa”, “lounge” for “sitting room” (although I will allow front room) and “serviette” instead of “napkin”. While we are on the subject, “tea” is served in the afternoon; any later than that and it’s “supper”.
Anti-snobs will argue that language is not static, and words acquire the meaning people give them. It’s a constantly evolving medium. To some extent I suppose that’s right. Modern times have brought more class-neutral words (most people will say “glasses” not “spectacles” and I feel quite dandy about that). Why then the hives? Further examination reveals that it’s perhaps less to do with clinging to the “U and Non U”, as Nancy Mitford would have it, and more to do with the intention behind the words being used.
When a strapping six foot date uses words like “sweet” or asks if he can “use the facilities” it’s easy to interpret my criticism as class-based snootiness, but I rather think it’s the other way around. What his words reveal is that my date thinks he’s somewhere fancy, and he’d better make sure he is appropriately refined. It’s a pretension to betterment – a sort of Hyacinth Bucketness if you will – from which he suffered, rather than from an overly picky girlfriend.
Euphemistic niceties are the linguistic equivalent of a doily. They’re the small, frilly curtains draped around the legs of your chairs, lest your guests gain an accidental glimpse of their well-turned ankles. They are the crocheted Spanish dancer popped fussily over the “toilet” roll to save your guests from the visual reminder that at some point in the day both you and they will have to wipe their arse. It’s the pretence that daintiness and nicety and being as posh as the next bloke are the way to better ourselves – and more – that bettering ourselves by way of what we say rather than do, is the way to go. Comfortable happy people call a spade a spade, and feel not the slightest need either to shield our eyes from it in a flutter of lace-edged drapery, nor our ears from hearing that you own something that digs the dirt.