PC 166 Mores and Milieu

I somehow managed to pass my English Language examination at school, but probably didn’t understand the complexities of English grammar and some of our rich language’s more unusual words in as much detail as I could have. I’m always slightly in awe of those who use long or strange-sounding words, wondering whether they are simply trying to imply some superiority or are just more intellectual than me! Such a shallow individual, huh!! The Physical Training teacher at boarding school, a Major Tim Wigmore, seemed to struggle with his vocabulary and we his pupils thought he tried to learn a new word every week. How horrible we were to take the mickey when he used a ‘new’ word in the wrong context.

But how is it possible not to know, for instance, what a zeugma is? Read PC 26 about this figure of speech. Since it was highlighted in The Times, I can now recognise a zeugma when I see one, as in: “In front of her lay a cup of coffee and another long day at work” from Jo Nesbo’s latest thriller The Knife.  Then people started asking how you could tell the difference between a zeugma and a syllepsis. Well, having not known of a zeugma for the first 60 years of my life, this was a step too far!

Two other words I have managed to live without for many many years are ‘mores’ and ‘milieu’! The first is nothing to do with Oliver Twist and his ‘more?’. ‘Mores’, pronounced ‘moreiz’, are the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a society or community; they are more formalised versions of ‘norms’, particularly in a social context.

Milieu we borrowed from the French, where its meaning is slightly different; but it’s actually from a Latin base. Pronouncing it with slightly pursed lips, ‘mi:lja’ is a person’s social environment, the culture that the individual was educated and lives in, and the people and institutions with whom they interact. A nice way of understanding it is the ‘milieu is the surroundings that make you you’.

Rod Liddle, writing in his Sunday Times column last month, had a go at people eating smelly food on trains, to the annoyance of those around them. He went on to bemoan the lack of respect for others that is increasingly evident in our society. You remember that rock song from Freddie Mercury and Queen, “I Want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”? It came out in 1989 towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 year term as Prime Minister and seemed to capture the spirit that she had encouraged. Everything is possible (This I agree with!) and you can have it NOW (No! You have to work hard and earn it!). But the rise of our individualistic culture has been at the expense of the community spirit that we, we British, used to have in abundance. Thatcher famously said she believed there was no such thing as ‘society’, so how do you describe our very necessary interaction with others, the collective spirit that binds individuals into interest groups, giving them something other than their own ego? Liddle summed it up cutely: “The right has encouraged less reliance on others as in a social way, the left has tried to abolish blame and responsibility. And in the minds of the liberal left, we shouldn’t judge others by any ‘bourgeois’ standards as to whether or not they are behaving with dignity.”

Or you leave yourself open to accusations of class snobbery, of social mores that conflict and irritate? But surely they are some real basic standards of manners irrespective of what milieu you naturally swim in? For ‘Manners Maketh Man’ (see note). No one has a monopoly on manners, each ‘class’ demonstrating an abysmal lack of manners at times; the “I want it now …… it’s my right to have it now” sort of attitude with no thought or respect for those around them, who may disagree.

In my 40th postcard, posted in May 2015, I scribbled about habits – saying ‘Good Morning’ to strangers on your street, having the loo seat always down (when not in use, obviously!) and other issues I get excited about. Like “Thank you” notes. I wrote that my own social mores dictate you should always write a note of thanks if you have lifted a knife and fork in someone else’s home. Sometimes things get into your head and go around and around ….. until you write them down. The following was transcribed at 0245 one morning recently:

“I will not accept that the current generation don’t know how to wipe their arses and dispose of the paper. I will not accept that, just because those living in Georgian times imported sugar to Great Britain, over 200 years on everyone blames the Georgian for their own fatness, that they are so fat that they can’t even reach their arse even if they know where to put the paper. As one of the Baby Boomers who grew up with rationing and scarcity, it is no wonder that the 1960s explosion in the use of plastic was heralded as some reflection on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And, no, we didn’t see its use would be so problematic to the planet; but you can’t dis-invent things and you shouldn’t blame the Baby Boomers! And I will not accept that two well-educated professional individuals, who probably swim in the same milieu as me, came to a carefully thought-through home-cooked lunch, seemingly enjoyed themselves, left through the front door ……. and disappeared like those on the Marie Celeste …… without a demonstrative thought to say ‘Thank You’ ……. in whatever form would convey appreciation. At its most basic, WhatsApp or text; maybe even a little email; even a telephone call: at best, a hand written card  …….. simply to signify that if you receive, you should say ‘Thank You’. If your life is SO busy, then don’t bother to ‘take’ in the first place!”

Sorry! In the words of one of my favourite FaceBook contributors Catherine, ‘Rant Over’!


Richard 28th November 2019

Note: Recorded by the headmaster of Eton William Horman (around 1500) “Manners are something used every day to make a good impression on others and to feel good about oneself …. Being polite and courteous means considering how others are feeling. If you practise good manners you are showing those around you you are considerate of their feelings and surroundings.”


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