Current Essays

Run your cursor gently over Rowie's ear to 'ear the essay.

Rhinoceros-Front Riding On:2006-07-14 04:31:03

You will see in a moment how much it pains me to admit this, but I have to tell you that the other day I traveled by ... um ... public transport; though, I hasten to reassure you, it was merely on a DART railway train so it isn't as bad as it could have been.
And so it fell out, that other day, on the most decidedly non-U Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and whilst pausing in the relative quiet of one of their stations I heard an American girl talking about going, as she described it, 'horseback riding'---now this immediately piqued my interest because in England, where we very much subscribe to the theory that 'less is more', if you do it, it is always just 'riding' (I mean you pretty-well know what part of which animal is involved!) While our young Americanette was perhaps trying to be pretentious about her activities (she was talking unusually loud, even for an American) our English term way outdoes her efforts because it is a perfect example of a particularly English form of aggressively anti-pretentious pretentiousness: a form which is to other sorts of pretension what passive-agressive behaviour is to kicking the ... well whatever out of whomever.

Now this really is a fascinating revelation, because as is well known the English have no other discernible characteristics and indeed suffer from the uniquely English disease of Ethnodeficiency (as I have elsewhere rehearsed), and here we are, suddenly faced with an exception, an actual fully fledged characteristic; and one moreover that is totally pervasive: consider, for example, the way we pronounce the names of English places. Here elision is king. For, as with the 'horse' and the 'back' of our riders, we cleverly disadvantage anyone who isn't like us by leaving out large (and preferably completely unpredictable) chunks of our place names and not just such egregious examples as the place that is spelled as though it should be pronounced /Why mond ham/ but is actually pronounced /Windm/, or the /hazebrə/ that is actually spelled as 'Happisburgh'. Oh! No! We will happily (should that be 'hazily'?) sabotage the most quotidian of names. Take our shires: while the stand-alone word is happy enough ungutted just as soon as it names a county it---well I can hardly bring myself to burden you with it, but it gets shivved right down to 'shr', as in /Barkshr/ which is of course spelled /Burk Shire/.

Then consider /Shrewzbry/ which not only loses most of its /bury/ but is only pronounced that way if you live there; if you went (or for that matter go) to school there it's /Shrowsbry/. And here we are getting closer to our destination (you didn't guess we had one, did you?). You see, if you went to one, you refer to your public school (remember that for us those are the top private schools--like Ivy League for the 7- through 12-grade crowd)----that public school that of course everyone who is anyone went to--- just as 'school'. At the heart of all this rampant elision is, I suspect, rampant elitism: the dichotomy between U and Non-U usage, which latter term I quietly snuck in at the beginning of this essay hoping you wouldn't notice. In other words it's that English class thing---'U' being upper class and 'Non-U' being the rest.

Coined by Alan Ross in his 1954 article 'U and non-U, an essay in sociological linguistics' in the mag Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, and popularised (even over here) by Nancy Mitford's 1956 Noblesse Oblige this is not just a linguistic phenomenon, but even extends to the elision of cutlery, though it may not be very obvious to you Americans since you usually eat with your fingers but the more U-ish of the English eschew quite a few of the items that deck the tables of the Non-U-ish. Note the fact that Miss Mitford's book ends with a poem by the great (if late) John Betjeman entitled How to get on in society which amusingly if cruelly satirizes what one might call 'Non-U-sage': it starts: "Phone for the fish-knives, Norman"

Ahh! And now to ensure that in my beginning is my end, Rowie just announced to me that she needs something to do till school starts and that she intends to take up "horseback riding" and all she's trying to be is expensive

Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton.


With the one exception of the schwa in "/hazebrə/" there is, I'm afraid, nothing IPAish about the pronunciations. The slashes are only there as a hint.

<-- Go Back

Home | Essays | Notes | Gallery | Miscellany | Contact

All contents including writing, cartooning, music, and photography unless otherwise specified are
copyright © 1965-2020 and Richard Howland-Bolton. All Rights Reserved.
All logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.
Web work* by
*as distinct from Wetwork