Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How Vulgar: Maids and Their Low-Class Speech

I have to admit it: I am a fan of old etiquette books and household-management manuals. There is no shortage of them online and they offer an interesting glimpse into the life that is long gone. Even though I have a sneaking suspicion that much of what is in these books has little relation to real attitudes and behaviors, it is not hard to imagine a social climber of the time actually reading these manuals to learn how to dress, walk and talk like a real lady, or an inexperienced wife learning how to interact with her household staff. Or a lady's maid learning a thing or two about how to serve her mistress best.

One particular aspect of the social downgrade transformation I have always found exciting was adopting a coarser and less educated manner of speech typical of the lower classes. Our speech is as much a part of us as the way we look and is, arguably, even more important in determining how we are perceived by people around us. That makes it a powerful instrument in describing a social drop or rise. While most stories dealing with upper/lower class transformation ignore the topic or only mention it in passing, there are some excellent examples of writers paying a great deal of attention to that. Emma Finn's writings, in particular Criminal Record, come to mind. Monica Graz's Domestication of a Parisian Bourgeois is another excellent example: the main character actually learns how to speak with a coarse Portuguese accent to fully embrace her immigrant maid persona. Another great example, offering the most painstaking description of learning how to speak like a low-class character I have come across, is "A Certain Perception'' by Angel Charysse. While the story doesn't deal with maids, its description of the voluntary change from an upper-class man into a dirty-talking and uncultured transsexual hooker is among the hottest (as well as most detailed) in transformation fiction.

Needless to say, I was excited to discover yet another etiquette book that, unlike most others of its breed, addresses the topic of vulgar and uneducated speech by domestic servants at significant length. After all, an illiterate and ill-mannered maid was a stock character in Victorian and Edwardian cartoons, in particular at Punch magazine. While the book is dated 1825, most of its recommendations were relevant for at least the next 100 years and some are still relevant today, at least if some British or American celebrities' speech patterns are any indication.

The Duties of a Lady's Maid, With Directions for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette
-- this little gem can be read in its entirety at Google Books. Here are the chapters on low-class speech:

Vulgar and Correct Speaking (pp. 98-123)

It will neither be required nor expected of you to speak with the elegance and polish of an accomplished and highly educated lady, nor with the accuracy of a professed governess: but it will add much to your respectability, and will, in most cases, be pleasing to your employers if you avoid vulgar expressions, and gross provincialisms, which are always a mark of low breeding, and may make it suspected that you have kept vulgar company. If you will attend to the remarks which I shall now make, and carefully observe the directions which I shall give, you may avoid the more obvious errors of this kind, without much knowledge of what is called grammar; for this would require more time and study than you could probably spare, and after all would not be, in your station, of particular advantage. I shall first give you one or two general observations, and then such as more particularly apply to the three different parts of the kingdom, England, Scotland, and Ireland.


One of the most common vulgarities, is the use of the words not and none, or no at the same time; as when you say "I have not got none." The proper expressions would be "I have got none, or I have not got any;" or simply, "I have none, or I have not any," without the got, which is usually reckoned a vulgar word. Again, you will hear vulgar people say, "I shall not go no more;" but the correct expression is, "I shall not go any more." The word never must be attended to in the same way, for it is vulgar to say, "I never saw it no more," or "I never had none of it," instead of correctly saying, "I never saw it any more," and "I never had any of it." I may say the same of the word nothing, which must not be used along with no, none, and never, for it would be vulgar to say, "I did not hear nothing," or " I never heard nothing," instead of "I heard nothing," or "I did not hear anything," or "I never heard anything."

A little attention and endeavour to correct yourself when you make any mistake in the use of such expressions, will soon make the correct mode of speaking as easy and familiar to you as the vulgar one, and will add, as I have already said, to your respectability. It will be proper, however, to tell you, that you may sometimes fall into mistakes after you are familiar with all which I have now told you, from not observing when you use the word not in a contracted form, as when you say, " It isn't nothing" or "I can't do none of it," or "I won't go no more;" all of which you will see, by a little consideration, are vulgar expressions, by using two of the words which should never be employed together.

These contracted forms of speaking are also vulgar, though not so bad as what we have just taught you to avoid. Some contractions, however, are more vulgar than others, for example, "A good 'un," for "a good one ,•" "I gave 'em to her," for "I gave them to her;" are worse than "I can't, or I won't." But by far the most vulgar of these is the contracted expression for "am not," "is not," and "are not," all of which are vulgarly contracted into "an't" as when you say, "I an't going," for "I am not going;" or "an't he at home ?" for "is not he at home?" or "an't they come?" for "are not they come?" All these ants are very vulgar, and must be carefully avoided in speaking, if you wish to become respectable, and to be looked upon as an intelligent girl, who has not been brought up among low people.

There is one little word which occurs so often, that if it be used improperly is a certain mark of vulgarity, I mean the word them, when it is employed instead of these or those, as when you say "I have done them things now," instead of " those things;" or when you say, "them colours are very pretty," for "those colours are very pretty." The only way in which you can discover this error and correct it, is to try whether you can put those or
thene, instead of them, and always do so when you can; or it may direct you still better if I tell you never to use the word them just before the name of any thing; such as in the vulgar expressions, "them houses," "them trees," "them needles," "them books;" for the words houses, trees, needles, books, are the names of things, and must never have a them before them. The expression, "do you mean them?" instead of, "do you mean those?" is no less vulgar.
The word for is another of the vulgar class, when employed before the word to, as when you say " I went for to do it," instead of " I went to do it;" or " she came for to get the muslins," instead of "she came to get the muslins."

The word seed for saw, or seen, ought never to be employed in any way, as when you hear vulgar persons say, "I see'd her," instead of "I saw her;" or " I have see'd it often," for " I have seen it often." The word "see," without the d to it is also used by the vulgar, as " I see her yesterday, for "I saw her yesterday." This word seed, is one of the most vulgar words, and only used by the lowest of the people. I may say the same thing of the word done, when used for did, or have done, as when you say, "I done it yesterday," for "I did it yesterday;" or "I done it now," for "I have done it now."

The next vulgarity which I have to mention, I am not able, I fear, to render quite so plain as the preceding, but I shall try to make you understand it, as it is of the utmost importance in Correct speaking. As a general remark then, I may say that when a name includes more than one thing, as in the word houses, or the words they or those, you must not use an s at the end of the word following it. For instance, it is vulgar to say, "the needles is bad," instead of "the needles are bad;" or "they looks rusty," for "they look rusty." It is the s at the end of look which makes it, in this case, vulgar. The words I and you, also, must not have an s at the end of the words following either of them; for it is very vulgar to say "I is going to town," instead of " I am going to town," or "I says to him," for "I say to him;" or "you he's the very person," for "you are the very person." You must never, then, according to this remark, say "the streets is dirty," for "the streets are dirty," nor "the men who works in the garden is going," for "the men who work in the garden are going;" or "women easily believes a fair speech," for "women easily believe a fair speech." It will require long and careful attention to practice this correctly, as there is scarcely a sentence which you utter that you may not commit mistakes of this kind; but as it is perhaps the most important of all the others, a little care will be well bestowed in avoiding the errors just pointed out.

On the same principle, it would be no less incorrect and vulgar to omit the s at the end of words following the name of a person or a thing, where only one individual person or thing is meant. You may find it somewhat difficult to comprehend this; but a few examples will help you to apply the rule to correct any mistake you may fall into; and it will help you also to understand it, if you consider it as the reverse of what I have just told you about the incorrect use of the s after names of persons or things, where more than one individual is included. Let us take the former examples, then, and it will be no less incorrect and vulgar to say "the needle look rusty," instead of "the needles look rusty," than to say " the needles looks rusty," which is wrong, as I told you above. All such expressions as "it do," " he do," " she do," are extremely vulgar; and should be "it does," "he does," "she does," because the s is to be used when only one person or thing is talked about, but not when there are more than one. I may remark indeed, that these vulgar expressions, "it look well," " she make a good servant," "he like to go," are rather peculiar to some parts of England; while the incorrect expressions, u the streets is dirty," "the dresses is badly made," are common to the uneducated and vulgar classes in all parts of the three kingdoms.

Nothing is more common and more offensive to the ears of those who are well educated, than the following very incorrect expressions: for instance, "more greater," "most beautifulest," "more prettier," "most commonest," and hundreds of others of a similar kind. I do not know any plainer direction I can give you for avoiding this, than telling you that you should in no case use the word "more," if the following word ends in r; nor the word "most," if the following word end in st. The word "more," also, must not stand before "worse." You are to remark, however, that you may employ the word "more" by leaving out the r in the following word, and in the same way you may use the word "most," by leaving out the st of the following word. For it will be equally correct to say, "this is the prettier of the two," and "this is the more pretty of the two;" and also, "this silk is the most beautiful," and "this silk is the beautifulest." You may also say correctly "this is worse than the more common sort," or "than the commoner sort;" but you must never say, as the vulgar always do, "this is more worse than the more commoner sort."

It is likewise a great mark of vulgarity to affect hard terms and long sounding words, for unless you are a very good scholar indeed, you will in many cases misapply them, and render yourself ridiculous. The best rule in this case is never to employ any word which you do not thoroughly understand, and with which you are not quite familiar. If you neglect this caution, and eagerly endeavour to show your acquirements, by introducing every strange word which you may hear from your employers or their visitors, you cannot fail to become a butt for the jests of all who observe your affectation of fine speaking. You may thus hear people say, " tremendous," instead of " tremendous," "genus," instead of genius," &c, &c.

It is no less vulgar to show a fondness for any particular word, and repeat it on all occasions, frequently in the most inappropriate manner. You may, for instance, observe that many persons will repeat the words vast and vastly in almost every sentence which they utter. They will as readily say "vastly little," as "vastly great," though the first is both vulgar and nonsensical. I once knew a tradesman at a fashionable watering-place, who had picked up the word "elegant;" which he applied, without distinction, to every thing, and talked as often of " elegant weather," or "an elegant day," as of "an elegant coach," to the no small amusement of many of his customers, who laughed heartily at his affectation. The words "terrible," and "frightful," and "horrid," and many others of a similar kind, are frequently applied, by vulgar people, in the same way, to things which are the very reverse of terrible or frightful.

Exclamations which mean nothing, are equally vulgar when repeated, as many persons are in the habit of doing: I mean such as "goodness me!" "my goodness!" "la, madam!" and hundreds of others of the same kind. You may have observed, if you have ever read a story or a play, that the vulgar characters are always marked by the continual repetition of some words of this kind; and it ought, therefore, to be your care not to contract a habit of repeating such things, for a habit is much sooner acquired than broken off.

To speak loud or bawl, as if every body you spoke to were deaf, is also a common vulgarity, which you should avoid as carefully as the opposite fault of speaking in an affected whisper.


The first vulgarity which I shall point out to you as prevalent among the lower orders in England, from Cumberland to Cornwall, is the practice of ending every thing they say with a question. For instance, instead of saying " the bonnet looks very smart," an English girl will add the question, "an't it?" or "don't it?" If this practice of ending what is said by a question, were only employed occasionally, and when it appears necessary, it might be proper enough; but when it is repeated every time a person speaks, as you may observe is the case among the ill-educated all over England, it becomes extremely vulgar. You may thus hear a person say, "I went very quick, did'nt I?" for "I always do, don't I?" or "Susan worked that very well, didn't she? she is a good girl, an't she? and I am very kind to her, ant /?" You must carefully avoid this vulgar practice of ending what you say with a question, if you are desirous of speaking correctly.

Another vulgarity peculiar to England is the use of the word on for of in a very great number of instances. I cannot point out this error to you in all cases, but if you attend to the examples which I shall give you, it will not be difficult for you to discover the error in most of the circumstances in which it occurs. You may hear persons, for example, say "five was the number on 'em" instead of " five was the number of them;" or "rouge is the name on it," for "rouge is the name of it;" or " lean'/ say nothing on'I," for " I can say nothing of it?

The use of the word "as" instead of "that," you must also avoid; for example, in the vulgar expression "she wan 't here at I knows on," instead of "she was not here that I know of." This word "as" indeed should never be employed before "I" except in the meaning of "when;" for example, it is correct to say, "as I was going to town I met Mrs. B." which means "when I was going to town;" but it would be wrong to say "she was not at church as I know of," because in this expression "as" does not mean "when;" and should, in correct speaking, have been "that."

Still more vulgar than either of these is a certain use of the words there and here, along with that and this, as when it is said "that there house," instead of "that house," or "this here book," instead of " this book." You may, however, without impropriety say "this book here," or "that house there's" but never, "this here" nor "that there."

The use of the word lot or lots, for number or quantity, is also a mark of vulgarity, in speaking which you ought to avoid. The expressions "lots of things," or "a great lot of things," are of this kind, and you should say "a number of things," or "a great number of things," It will not, however, be remarked as vulgar, though you say "a quantity of people;" but I may tell you that it is incorrect, and you ought to say "a number of people."

One of the very common vulgarities prevalent in England is a peculiarly awkward way of bringing in the name of a person at the end of a sentence, with the words "is" or "was" before it. I cannot describe this more intelligibly, except by an example; for instance, you may hear an ill educated girl say "she was very kind to me, was Mrs. Howard," instead of correctly saying "Mrs. Howard was very kind to me." Again, "he is a very worthy man, is Mr. Howard" instead of "Mr. Howard is a very worthy man." I say that such expressions are not only vulgar but uncouth and awkward, and more like the blunders of a foreigner than a person speaking in her mother tongue; yet nothing is more common than this awkward vulgarity, which I expect you, will never commit after it has been now pointed out to you.
Using the word "lay" instead of "lie," however common it may be, is decidedly incorrect and vulgar. Thus, to say "the silk lays on the table," instead of "the silk lies on the table," or "the book laid on the shelf," instead of " the book lay on the shelf," are quite vulgar; though sometimes used by those who ought to know better. "The gauze lays on the sofa," "she lays in bed," "the child lays ill of small pox," are all vulgar; as well as "I saw it lay there yesterday," or "it laid there yesterday." In all such cases "lays" should be "lies;" "lay" should be "lie;" and "laid" should be "lay."

The manner in which certain words are pronounced is also a very evident mark of vulgarity. One of the most remarkable instances of this kind in England is the sounding of an r at the close of words ending in a or o, as when you say "idear" for "idea," or "fellor" for "fellow," or "windor" for "window," or "yellor" for "yellow." This is extremely difficult to be corrected when once it has become a habit; and so regularly does it follow in every word of similar ending, that you may hear persons say "Genevar" for "Geneva," as commonly as children say "mammar" and "papar."

The natives of London are supposed to commit the greatest mistakes with regard to the sounds of v and w, and in the sounding or not sounding of the letter h properly; but these mistakes are not always confined to London, but may be met with in every part of England.
A person who is in the habit of making such mistakes, will talk of a "wery 'igh vindow" for a "very high window," or of a "Aold hoak table" for an "old oak table," or of "pretty blue eyes" for " pretty blue eyes." The best way of conquering this vulgarity, and indeed of most of those which I have pointed out, is to make out a list of the words of which you are apt to mistake the correct use, and repeat them frequently till you are familiar with them all. If you have any friend who will assist you in the task, your labour will be greatly facilitated, and you will be more confident of your own correctness.
Such are a few of the English vulgarities. I could easily enumerate many more, but my object is not so much to make you a fine speaker, as to guard you against the more common mistakes which will cause you to be taken notice of.

*** Long sections (complete with tables) on vulgarities common to Scotland and Ireland follow.

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