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Toffs and oiks: the language of social class

Union Jack flagJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at the language of social class.

A recent survey conducted by the BBC revealed a new class structure in the UK consisting of seven social classes. The top class is termed the elite and the bottom one, the precariat, or precarious proletariat. Leaving aside any political or sociological consequences, we will almost certainly be hearing a lot more of the word precariat, until now a rarity in everyday English.

Le précariat was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers, and has since been used in other languages including Italian (precariato), German (Prekariat), Spanish (precariado) and even Japanese (purekariāto). Its meaning has evolved into that of a social class – or underclass – as formulated by the sociology professor Loïc Wacquant and the British sociologist Guy Standing in his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

At the top of the new structure we find another word of French origin, elite, which has been used in English since the early 19th century to mean a group of powerful, influential people. English may be the language of a famously class-conscious people and have given the word ‘snob’ to the world but it relies heavily on imports for the vocabulary of class.

Social class has been defined in different ways over the years. Back in classical times, there were patricians and plebeians. In our agricultural past, class was determined by a person’s family and their links to the land – the nobility or aristocracy, the gentry, including the squirearchy, the yeomanry and the peasantry. With the coming of 19th century industrialization, the focus shifted to the individual’s relation to the means of production and the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were the two conflicting classes in Marxist theory. ‘Bourgeoisie’ and ‘petite bourgeoisie were also used in non-political contexts to refer to the growing middle classes. Recent times have tended to speak mainly of ‘the middle class’ and ‘the working class’, with the middle class often divided into upper and lower middle class. The terms ‘upper class’ and ‘lower class’ are less frequent in serious discussion of class.

By studying corpus statistics we can see how adjectives ending in ‘-class’ are actually used and gain a better picture of our perception of class. ‘Working-class’ is typically followed by the nouns ‘struggle(s)’, ‘movement’ and ‘exploitation’. ‘Middle-class’ collocates with ‘suburb’, ‘families’ and ’respectability’; ‘upper-middle-class’ with ‘suburbanites’, ‘enclave’ and ‘accents’, and ‘lower-middle-class’ with ’background(s)’, ’ insecurity’ and ’origins’. ‘Lower-class’ is used of ‘delinquents’, ‘accent’ and ‘subculture’, whereas ‘upper-class’ is used largely in insults, followed by words such as ‘twit(s)’, ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’.

Social class has become more fluid: in the 19th and early 20th centuries the English language adopted the French forms arriviste, parvenu and nouveau riche to speak in a disapproving way of people who, in the latter half of the 20th century, would be spoken of approvingly as upwardly mobile and aspirational. If someone is described as being of lowly or humble origins, they have usually made it up the social ladder!

More informal words describing individuals are nearly always used as insults, giving us a polarized view of a posh bunch of la-di-da, toffee-nosed upper-class twits, Hooray Henrys, chinless wonders and toffs with plummy accents at one end of the spectrum, and at the other a common bunch of chavs, oiks and plebs.

In 1990, the incoming British Prime Minister, John Major (who rose to the highest office from working-class origins!) vowed to create a ‘classless society’. It seems Britain still has some way to go.


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“Thank you, thank you so much” – the language of acceptance speeches

Celebrity red carpet interviewJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at common themes in the language of acceptance speeches.

If you’ve ever had a nightmare about standing tongue-tied on stage grappling for words, you may find it instructive – and consoling – to study what the winners of major film awards say when they pick up the accolade. Analysis of recent acceptance speeches reveals the key features of the genre.

The stars are urged to keep their speeches brief – the average length is just 187 words and on the whole they’re getting shorter. As the main purpose is to express gratitude, the word thank is unsurprisingly the runaway winner occurring on average nearly 6 times per speech, with Thank you, thank you so much a common phrase:

Thank you, thank you so much.  […] Thank you so much, the Academy, what an honor.

This quote illustrates the popular rhetorical device of repeating words to emphasize the message. Some speakers, maybe aware of over-reliance on a single word, display a touch of irony:

There are  […] thousands of people to thank, so thankfully I’m not going to thank them now.

Unfortunately, award-winners don’t consult a thesaurus – occurrences of gratitude and grateful are fairly sparse, but there are a few instances of shout-out as in:

A big shout-out to Monty Norman and the late John Barry for that iconic theme.

The object of these outpourings are the awarding body, the fellow nominees (a term used predominantly by American English speakers, echoing the presidential my fellow Americans/citizens), the director – sometimes spoken of in nautical terms as our beloved skipper or our visionary captain, the cast, crew and team, and, of course, the speaker’s entire family. All of the above are frequently assured of the speaker’s love, especially at the Oscars:

And to our kids  […]. I love you guys.

Along with the thanks often comes surprise – favourite exclamations are wow, oh my, etc:

Oh my, oh my God. Oh wow really, […] truly wow. / Oh boy. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this.

The top adjectives used to describe the honour, emotions, etc. are, in order of frequency: wonderful, incredible, amazing, brilliant, extraordinary and fantastic, sometimes preceded by the intensifiers really, absolutely and truly.

Film or movie? This clearly depends in part on who the individual award-winners are: the BAFTAs show a strong and consistent preference for film over movie, but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the Oscars are undergoing a shift from film to movie with movie staying ahead of film at the 2013 ceremony, continuing a trend that started in 2012.

Speeches may be structured with the use of phrases such as first of all, first and foremost, matched by last but not least or finally:

And then finally, finally – okay, I am really getting there – finally, finally,…

To use a favourite end-of-speech phrasal verb, let’s wrap up this post with some interesting language from Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance speech at the 2013 BAFTAs:

I want to thank my actors for doing a bang-up job with my dialogue […] this was a pretty hot potato script  […]

… for them to actually do it, pony up a lot of money to do it, and do it the right way…

… and the more telegraphic style of the conclusion to his 2013 Oscar speech:

You guys are all wonderful. Peace out.

Data for this blog is drawn from BAFTA winners’ acceptance speeches from 2011-2013 and Academy Awards® winners’ onstage speeches from 2010-2013.

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Words for World events: what’s on the A(-Z)-list?

Collection of World flagsJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at some of the World events that prompted the most searched-for words on OALD8.com in 2012.

2012 was quite a year – the Olympics and the Jubilee in the UK, freak weather and political turmoil almost everywhere, not to mention the predicted end of the world.

But what impact did these things have on the ELT community? One way of gaining an insight into what was on the minds of learners and teachers of English around the world is by analysing which words were most frequently looked up each month on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary website.

Unsurprisingly, the usual round of seasonal festivals accounts for many items on the list, with Pancake Day and Mardi Gras in February, bonfires and Memorial Day in November and bauble, poinsettia and the rest of the festive lexicon in December. But there are numerous other words more specific to local and world events. So what were some of the events that caught our interest in 2012?

In January came news that UK university applications had fallen as tuition fees rose, and many people turned to the dictionary to check what this term meant. January and February also saw a surge of interest in astronomy with dwarf planet and plutoid zooming into view. Back on our own planet, President Obama went to Korea in March and visited the demilitarized zone, with the result that demilitarize was one of the month’s favourites.

Tour de France riders

Image courtesy of hyku on Flickr.

In April a few hundred of you were interested in debunking – maybe fans of the economist Steve Keen, whose book Debunking Economics seeks to expose the failings of economic theory. Possible evidence of this failure is the on-going financial crisis in the Eurozone, which led to talk in May of Greece ditching the euro and bringing back the drachma. The summer of sport took off with the Tour de France and the peloton was on everyone’s lips and keyboards in both June and July. Sadly, when the sun comes out, so too do the litter louts, who made it into the news and dictionary statistics in June.

Further summery activities in July led word-watchers to turn to the website when they heard of people tiptoeing through the tide pools and throwing summer cookouts; both American English terms. A chilling contrast to this summer fun came with the Aurora shooting in Colorado, where the suspect had planted sophisticated booby traps in his apartment. Back to sport, and July and August saw the London Olympics generate a spike in sports-related searches, including heptathlon, velodrome and tae kwon do. The Olympic and Paralympic games were followed in September by a return to political fun and games in London with the former Chief Whip arguing with the police: the word pleb may or may not have been traded as an insult but, along with the related form plebs, it was the subject of many perfectly polite dictionary queries.

Mayan Apocalypse

Image courtesy of Kačičky.com.

In the US the presidential campaign meant that political terminology was the order of the day with swing state and electoral college in October and November. And not for the first time, an extramarital affair led to the resignation of a major public figure, in this case the head of the CIA. The December statistics are overflowing with Christmas-related terminology but that non-event supposedly foretold by the Mayans inspired numerous people to look up apocalypse and doomsday.

Luckily, rather than the end of the world, the month of December merely signalled another end to a year. So who knows what the top words of 2013 will be? Surely, that’s something else it would be foolish to try to predict…

Judith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Before this she was a language teacher and translator from Spanish and Catalan into English.

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