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Hugh Laurie as the toffee-nosed Bertie Wooster

So the last installment of this cavalcade of inter-class spite was from the upper and middle classes aiming down, now the boot’s on the other foot, the worm is turning and the common people are baring their fangs.

Of course, the repercussions for fang-baring in as class-ridden a society as Britain, over the years, has been extreme. Insubordination of any stripe has been met with anything from public floggings to the death penalty, so there’s a lot less obvious venom in the angry language shooting up than there is in the dismissive language hammering down.

The slang terms aimed at the ruling classes, those who have all the power and influence, are almost affectionate. Toffs, they are: a word which may have derived from the gold tufts worn by aristocratic undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge universities (or the Anglo Saxon tofuran, a word which carries implies superiority of rank).

Although it’s most likely to come from an abbreviation of toffee-nosed, which also still does the rounds as a mild term of abuse. The phrase comes from that period in Victorian Britain when upper class men used snuff. As you’d expect, the act of inhaling powdered tobacco up your nose does tend to lead to a problem with discolored nasal mucus, leading to a posture where the head is inclined so that the face points upwards.

So you’ve got an upper-class drug habit, brown snot and an aloof posture. Small wonder such a vibrant phrase lasted as well as it did.

And of course, if the upper classes are looking down at the lower classes, there are plenty of words for them: snob, snobby, snooty, posh (which was originally another word for a dandy, an immaculately dressed man, but became a catch-all adjective for the finer things in life), posho (the noun of posh).

All fairly light-hearted stuff nowadays. Even toffee-nosed is hard to yell with any real venom, compared to the likes of oik, chav, or scum.

But there is a special hatred reserved for anyone of humble origins who is considered to be a social climber. You can try and better yourself, goes the logic, but you’ll never escape where you’re from. This verbal sideswipe is responsible for a heap of insults:

Hoity-toity is an adjective which has entirely flipped over from referring to the actions of a boorish, riotous drunkard, to those of a mannered and prissy scold. To say someone is hoity-toity is to accuse them of having airs and graces, to be a bit up themself. A social climber, and a snob, to boot.

Similarly, lah-di-dah comes from a sing-song approximation of a Wildean ponce (with all the attendant homophobia that such a word brings) or a Bertie Wooster type, someone with a refined bray and an effete manner. You’d probably bark out “look, here comes fancy pants, hasn’t he come all over lah-di-dah?” while affecting the air of a toffee-nosed Beau Brummel and flapping your hands about.

Sometimes you can be accused of these things just for the crime of reading a book or wearing glasses, so it’s not all righteous struggle.

Of course, to be truly up yourself is not to care about any of this stuff, and to be stand-offish. That’ll really get their goat.

Which British slang term shall we do next? Tell us here:

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine