I love Downton Abbey. (Judge me all you like – I take your ‘far-fetched’, ‘no sense of timescale’ and ‘ruined by America’, and I say to you this: Matthew and Mary.) I suspect that, in part at least, this is because they’re terribly posh and speak what is widely regarded as ‘proper English’* and I find this as brilliantly entertaining as my dog finds her own tail.
As a northerner, it was quite late in my life when I realised that it wasn’t just newsreaders and the royal family who put imaginary ‘r’s into words like grass and bath. Further mind-boggling occurred when I realised it wasn’t just people in That London who did it – posh northerners did it sometimes too! The upshot of this late realisation is that when I went to Oxford, which was full of people who were variously southern and posh, the novelty had not worn off. Four years later, it still hasn’t.
You can imagine my delight, then, when my college daughter turned out to be both posh AND southern. The day I realised that ‘fool’ and ‘fall’ sounded exactly the same in her accent was absolutely one of the highlights of my university career. Since then, my test of how proper someone’s English is has consisted of asking them to say “The fool fell, foolishly falling on the way to the ball.” (Try it out next time you bump into the Queen – it’s truly brilliant.)
Yesterday, my benchmark moved. To be fair, it’s not something I talk about regularly, but 22 years of my existence have passed by without me ever hearing somebody say Shih Tzu without swearing. Try it for yourself now – you could just as easily be talking about a sub-standard animal park. That’s just how it is. I’ve heard the politest people I know say it, I’ve heard primary school teachers say it, I’ve heard Blue Peter presenters say it – even my grandad, who apologises if he says as much as ‘damn’ in front of a lady, says it. I didn’t think there was another way. But yesterday, as I sat in the opticians, minding my own business, my world was turned upside down.
To be honest, I don’t even know how she did it. I’ve been trying to replicate it for about 24 hours now to absolutely no avail. But a little old lady, in reference to the decline in popularity of the sausage dog amongst small-dog owners (yep, that’s the sort of small talk people make these days), dropped it into conversation as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She said Shih Tzu without swearing. It was all I could do to rein myself in and fight the urge to shout “HOW DID YOU DO THAT?!” With impeccable self-restraint, however, I resisted, but I have no idea what the rest of the conversation was about.
From now on though, the falling fool has been abandoned and the humble Shih Tzu is my proper English standard of choice. And if I ever meet Dame Maggie Smith, I will definitely be asking if she has a favourite breed of small dog.
*I could bore you with a vaguely historical rant about quite how recent a phenomenon Received Pronunciation is, but I won’t because I really can’t say the word phenomenon.