Who'd have guessed that my 1922 quote from Emily Post in yesterday's column -- on the gaucheness of "Pleased to meet you" -- would be so timely? It was just such language, so the London press is saying, that scuttled the romance of Prince William and girlfriend Kate Middleton.
It was not Kate's own language, though -- contrary to the Reuters item in today's Globe -- that was deemed too rough. It was her mother, Carole, who was heard saying "Pleased to meet you" instead of "How do you do" and "Pardon" instead of "What?" And, worse, "using the word 'toilet' not 'lavatory,'" according to the Daily Telegraph.
Novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson, defending the Middletons in today's Daily Mail, reviewed some of those shibboleths: "If you say 'notepaper' rather than 'writing paper'; if you say 'spectacles' rather than 'glasses'; if you say 'serviette' for 'napkin,' you are almost certainly a member of the middle classes, rather than upper."
Or you may be an innocent foreigner. Last month, Lynne "Lynneguist" Murphy blogged about the trials of moving from the States to South Africa to England, each time having to learn the preferred way to ask for the bathroom, restroom, toilet, or loo.
Shopping for plumbing can be a puzzle too. My mom stopped into Home Depot not long ago and asked to look at lavatories, only to have a helpful fellow lead her to the towering wall of toilets. He thought she was being euphemistic, but no -- she was actually seeking a bathroom sink. At least her need wasn't urgent.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.