Every man in his U-mour
Sir: Lord Egremont's enjoyable and affected article about U-usage (22 November) perpetuates the central error of the whole discussion. Not that it matters much, I agree with him there.
He says: 'The whole subject is ludicrous, anyway. We should all speak as we choose.' But we do not choose; and that is the point. In fact it's the very first point he makes. Only he confines it to himself : 'I have an old- fashioned, inherited, natural accent. I go on using it because it is the only unaffected ac- cent I've got ... at the age of forty-nine I am not going to try to change it.'
Someone who grows up in an environment where everyone calls the lavatory the toilet naturally calls it the toilet. For him to do anything else would be affected and snob- bish. To accuse him of euphemism, to say he is being coy or genteel, is simply false. He is being direct and straightforward, and refer- ring to the lavatory by its common name. If he then meets people from other backgrounds who call it the lavatory, and he consciously switches to that usage because he thinks it's smarter, then his behaviour is reprehensible. (Not, as I say, that it mat- ters.) The simple fact is we don't choose our basic vocabulary, we acquire it before we're aware of the possibility of choice. This being so, to choose at all is itself, usually, affected. Of course this means that a man's vocabulary and accent can tell you a lot about his social origins, but we all know that. What it can't do is justify the at- tribution of any characteristics to the man himself. All this business about 'pretentious' 'euphemistic', 'genteel' and so on rests on muddled thinking.
Bryan Magee Turnberry Hotel, Turn berry, Ayrshire
Sir: I sympathise with Nancy Perry (Letters, 29 November) when she says that she had thought that the primary object of a book reviewer was to give information relevant to
-the book. In this case it was not my fault. You. Sir, when commissioning the article about which she complains asked me to write in the way I did. If, however, you have thus saved her from becoming an affected U-per- son, you will have done her a good turn.
Lord Sudeley, whose sentiments I applaud, may not find his aim so easy to achieve as he thinks. Of the three marvellous, good and kind people who handled me in the nursery, two were the daughters of a gamekeeper in Herefordshire and one was the daughter of a policeman in Northamptonshire. I was brought up in Rutland. My family's roots are in Sussex and Cumberland. But I speak the Wyndham vernacular.
My daughter used to speak cockney. Now she speaks Wyndhamesque. There is nothing to be done about it. Something to do with the genes I suppose.
Rule number one—always be U-self. Egremont Petworth House, Petworth, Sussex