A few years ago I cringed to hear an American politician say in a BBC Radio 4 interview—in England, for a British audience—that “Washington has got to get to work to support middle class families”, in part by “lowering taxes on middle class households”. So—I imagine American readers asking—what’s wrong with that?
The problem is that “middle class” means something different over here.
American families who pay for their kids to go to private schools, whose parties are written up in the society pages, who have swimming pools or ponies or both, who have domestic help and second homes, who collect expensive wines, designer clothes, and country club memberships, who wouldn’t be seen dead in an evening gown they’d worn before or a tuxedo they had to rent, are generally considered upper class. Here, those people would be called middle class.
That’s because in British terms, the US doesn’t have an actual upper class. The upper class here is the aristocracy, a group united by attributes such as titles (Baron, Viscount, etc.), family ties to those with titles, or at least ties to certain socially prominent families that go back several centuries. They tend to have (or to once have had) large estates, run by large numbers of employees. They speak with the right accent (accent is extremely important here; think of how the Queen speaks and you’ve got the top end of the aristocratic accent) and get the right sort of education, which is not about doing well in school, but about which school you go to. Being upper class has little to do with how much money the family has in this generation: fortunes may come or go, but whatever your bank balance you’re still either U (upper class) or non-U (the rest of us)—terms actually in use here, although considered somewhat old-fashioned.
If you want to know who’s a part of the aristocracy you look in a book known as Debrett’s but officially titled Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage (because baronets, who occupy the lowest rung on the title ladder, technically aren’t peers). Debrett’s will also, of course, tell you Who in the aristocracy Outranks Whom. Virginia Woolf wrote “Americans have swallowed their dinner by the time it takes us to decide whether the widow of a general takes precedence of the wife of a knight commander of the Star of India”. These social distinctions must be made before anyone can go in to dinner, because of course you have to enter the dining room in the correct order. That is, people of her class did so in Woolf’s day, and the top echelon still does so on, say, formal occasions when to do otherwise might cause a diplomatic incident.
Fortunately I’m not often called upon to make those sorts of judgment calls. But I do occasionally run across web sites that, when they ask users to register, offer a pull-down menu with not only Mr. and Mrs. and such, but lots of aristocratic titles. Take for example the web site for the Royal Opera House, home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, where prospective supporters of the arts are offered over 200 choices.
The British versions of Mr and Mrs are slightly different—did you notice the missing periods (UK: full stops)? The British distinguish between a contraction, in which the final letter of the word is retained, and an abbreviation, in which it isn’t. (There is hierarchy, or at least protocol, even in the realm of punctuation.) So Mr, Mrs, and Dr have no period, but Rev. does, although the Royal Opera House’s web site, rather than peppering their list with dots, seems to have skipped them entirely. Often it seems that the higher up the scale you go, the more likely you’ll leave that full stop behind you, so The Hon.—that’s for Honourable, used for the younger sons of earls, among others—may have the period, but it’s unusual to see the little typographical specks after the letters in HRH—Her/His Royal Highness.
(Ms doesn’t get a period either, and here they pronounce it muzz, which always sounds to me like a put down, as though they’re mocking people who use Ms. The American pronunciation, mizz, sounds right to me, but then that’s how people where I come from pronounce Mrs. anyway.)
But once we get past those everyday honorifics—technically these are styles, by the way—for ordinary people, things start to get interesting. The Royal Opera House’s list continues with Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Captain, Chancellor—on and on. Lord Justice, Princess, Reverance. Right Honourable Viscount brings up the rear of a group that includes Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, and Rt Hon The Earl. Are you a Sir, a Sister, or a Sultan, perhaps? The only hierarchy that trumps that of social status is alphabetical order; only in a list like this would a Professor Dame precede a Queen.
The list includes military ranks, academic titles—both Prof and Professor, oddly, so perhaps one is for sticklers who want their positions noted in full—and various ambassadors. In fact, there’s a special entry just for the French Ambassador, should he or she want to support the arts: HE (His/Her Excellency) the French Ambassador M – for monsieur or madame.
And there are many religious ranks, mainly from the Church of England. The church hierarchy is more important here than Americans might suppose, since all archbishops and some bishops sit in the House of Lords and help make laws—a strange idea to someone used to the separation of church and state. Where I grew up, religious honorifics went no further than Brother, so clerical titles here seem exotic: Rev, Very Rev, Rev Dr, Very Rev Dr, Rev Canon, Rev Preb (Reverend Prebendary), Right Rev (for C of E bishops). I won’t tax your patience with the whole list, but I’ve got to mention my favourite: The Venerable. That’s for an archdeacon emeritus. I don’t know anyone who’s ever met one of these; they must be shy creatures who rarely come out of their dens, something like badgers.
For titles in the Church of England, the reference book is Crockford’s Clerical Directory, rather than Debrett’s; bishops and archbishops are not peers even if they do sit in the Lords, where they are known as the Lords Spiritual, as opposed to the peers, who are the Lords Temporal. Of course, if a titled person becomes an archbishop, he (they might someday have female archbishops here, but that’s a loooong way off) would be a Lord both Temporal and Spiritual. And some of these are members of the queen’s Privy Council (a set of political advisors), and so have titles added to reflect that status.
Mix secular and clerical titles, and you can come up with such lengthy and convoluted strands it feels like discovering a new kind of DNA, in which the sequence of chemical—or in this case social—building blocks combine in different ways to produce different kinds of creatures. The highest-ranking priest in the Church of England is the Most Honourable and Right Reverend the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s also Primate of All England, a title that I always think invites thoughts of Darwin and—well, let’s not go there.
Among the Lords Temporal there are 5 ranks: baron/baroness, viscount/viscountess, earl/countess, marquis/marchioness, and duke/duchess. From those 5 come any number of titles. You might be not only the Duke of Someplace, but HRH the Duke of Someplace. Some people are the Earl So-and-so and others are the Earl *of * So-and-so, and the Royal Opera House caters for both. (You cannot, however, be the Duke of Earl, unless you are Gene Chandler.)
The longest title from the British peerage appearing on the Royal Opera House’s list, and the one that seemed the most improbable when I first saw that list, is the Dowager Marchioness of. A dowager is a widow in possession of a title or property left to her by her husband; the word is related to dowry and endowment. The marquess whose death added dowager to our arts-supporting marchioness’ title would ordinarily have left the bulk of his estate to the next holder of the title, usually his son, and in fact may have been legally compelled to do that by the terms under which he’d accepted his title and property in the first place.
And at the pinnacle of the social order sit royalty. Kings, queens, princesses and princes, Royal Highnesses andSerene Highnesses, even HRH Sultan Shah—the Royal Opera House is ready for all of them to surf right in (tempting to make a pun on serfs, there).
In fact, this emphasis on titles risks reinforcing the impression that opera and ballet are the province of aristocrats, a view very much at odds with the Royal Opera House’s goal of making the arts available to everyone, from royalty to commoners. (The life of Anna Nicole Smith provided the story for a recently premiered opera; it could be argued that you can’t get more common than that.) The military ranks, for example, include the likes of Commodores and Major Generals; it might appear that enlisted personnel and NCOs do not fall into the Royal Opera House’s target market, although that’s not the case.
Royal Opera House staff confirmed that they’re planning a new web site, which will offer a few of the more often-used choices plus a fill-in-the-blank box for those who answer to titles beyond the run-of-the-mill. The UK’s on-line passport application system uses that sort of mechanism, offering a choice of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss and Mstr (Master—for boys not old enough to be Misters), plus a box for write-ins. In the case of passports, if you claim to be a Wing Commander (in the RAF), a Lord Justice (a certain type of judge), or a Baronetess (a woman who inherits a baronetcy in her own right, rather than being married to a baronet, though few baronetcies permit females to hold the title), you’d better be prepared to prove it.
Looking through the Royal Opera House’s list of titles I began to wonder whether it had just accrued over the years. Why a Dowager Marchioness, but no other Dowagers? Why list all those Reverends, but stop short of Most Reverend? Why Professor Dame and not Professor Sir? The friendly staffer I spoke to said the list reflects all the titles of those who have, over the many years the Royal Opera House has been keeping a database, expressed an interest. So the list is a slice of social history, even if it is a slice from the top and doesn’t reflect the overall proportions; after all, they could have 5000 Misters and one Sultan, but the list gives each title equal weight.
So that’s the Anglo-American Experience blog’s first look at titles, and a cursory look it is; I’m sure this will come up again. But you can better understand now, I think, why the British would view our American “upper-class”—the country-clubbed, ponied, and swimming-pooled set—as middle class, and why I cringed to hear the politician talking about the US being run for the advantage of the middle class. Working-class British people would hear that as a plea for more help for rich Americans—but then again, that’s what a lot of people over here think the US government is doing anyway, because not only do we have an upper class on top of the classes Americans have, we have a political left that is far to the left of what Americans have. But that’s a topic for another day.