A Handbag or a Bag? Messenger or Courier?

It may be termed a Messenger or Courier bag by Zazzle but it’s just the right size for a handbag, as far as I’m concerned.  The latter can never be too capacious!

My mother taught me never to say ‘handbag’, only ‘bag’, because she was upper class and brought up to use what would later be called U and non-U English, with ‘U’ standing for upper.  These terms were memorably laid out in Nancy Mitford‘s  Noblesse Oblige, which created considerable discussion in the newspapers of the mid-1950s.

Where handbags are concerned, I am reminded, of course, of the famous line spoken by Lady Augusta Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  Looked at from an upper-class perspective, I have always thought that the character was commenting not on the fact that Ernest, when a baby, had been found in a bag — “A somewhat large… black… leather handbag with handles…” — at Victoria Station, so much as at the very non-U ‘handbag’!

I cannot finish this post about language and class — with a rather nice bag attached! — without giving you Sir John Betjeman‘s How to Get on in Society, where the poet gives his response to the debate by using ‘non-U’ words throughout.   My brother and I often used to tease my mother by using as many ‘non-U’ words as we could in any given conversation because we knew it would drive her crazy.  Actually, she was crazy.  She was a manic-depressive.  Oh, I’m sorry, they call it bi-polar these days.  I’m sure that were she still alive she would be saying that ‘bi-polar’ was ‘terribly common’, a very ‘non-U’ word!

How to Get on in Society

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It’s ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule’s comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you —
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m soiling the doilies
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

Be warned, social climbers! When Noblesse Oblige, subtitled An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, was published in 1956, The Times Literary Supplement said:

‘This is a jolly, ephemeral book . . . Its fashionable conclusions are, of course, impermanent; and unborn social climbers will find it no more reliable as a guide, than the Space Traveller would find an Edwardian Bradshaw* – whose inoperative charm it none the less entertainingly shares.”

(I’ve just done a spell-check and WordPress suggested it would be better to use ‘enough’ instead of ‘sufficient’ in Betjeman’s poem!)

Take care and keep laughing!


*Train timetable

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