U and non-U English usage, with U standing for upper class, and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes, were part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in 1950s Britain and New England. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, which in many instances used the same words as the upper class.
For this reason, the vocabulary list can often appear quite counter-intuitive: the middle class prefers ‘fancy’ or fashionable words (even neologisms), often euphemisms, in an attempt to make themselves sound more refined, while the upper class in many cases sticks to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as they have no need to make themselves sound more refined, conscious of their status.
The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross (Professor of Linguistics in the University of Birmingham). He coined the terms U and non-U in an article on the difference that social class makes to English language usage, which was published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal. His article covered differences of pronunciation and writing style, but it was his attention to differences of vocabulary that received the most attention.
The English author Nancy Mitford was alerted and immediately took up the usage in an essay, ‘The English Aristocracy,’ that was published by Stephen Spender in his magazine ‘Encounter’ in 1954. Mitford provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes, unleashing an anxious national debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery, which involved a good deal of soul-searching that itself provided fuel for the fires. The essay was reprinted in a ‘condensed and simplified version,’ as ‘Noblesse Oblige: an Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy’ in 1956.
The U and non-U issue could have been taken lightheartedly, but at the time many took it very seriously. This was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in 1950s Britain, recently emerged from post-war austerities. In particular the media used it as a launch pad for many stories, making much more out of it than was first intended. In the meantime, the idea that one might ‘improve oneself’ by adopting the culture and manner of one’s ‘betters,’ instinctively assented to before World War II, was now greeted with resentment.
Many of the words were slightly outdated by the 1950s, being more typical of the 1850s (e.g: Looking-glass, Chimneypiece); unlike some other groups the English aristocracy and middle class were not self-consciously adopting a new group vocabulary, but had not changed in using some words during a century of great social changes. Some of the terms and the ideas behind them were largely obsolete by the late 20th century, when, in the United Kingdom, reverse snobbery led younger members of the British upper and middle classes to adopt elements of working class speech (e.g. Estuary English and Mockney). Many, if not most, of the differences however are still very much current — and therefore perfectly usable — as class-indicators.