It might be hard to say this without sounding priggish or being accused of being rather more politically correct than is healthy, but here goes … We have to stop using the word "toff".
Would we get away with saying "faggot" on the BBC? No – there are very few circumstances where that would be acceptable. Would the Guardian print the word "pikey"? Well they have done five times this year (three times were earnest discussions about the word's racism, and the other two were, well, a bit racist). Can you use the word "gay" as a general derogative (as in "those trainers are really gay") on Radio 1? Well yes, it turns out that you can, according to the BBC Trust. Could we use the n-word in Total Politics? Well probably not, especially when making the point that there is rightly a hierarchy of offensiveness. Some uses of some words fall below the threshold of acceptability and some are definitely above it.
"Toff" is way above that threshold. It is deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and – especially when used in normal working-class conversation or on national TV – it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred.
The phenomenon of the word has grown over the last five years. Initially it was purely a term of abuse. (You only have to visit the website toffscum.com to see this – have a look at it and be appalled). But more recently it has become rather more insidious than that because it is so much more widely used. We have heard it increasingly used in conversation over the last year, invariably to casually describe people "not like us" and very often used by people who are otherwise rather progressive in their politics. Witness Denis MacShane.
You cannot consider yourself of the right and use the word. It is sneering and patronising and – perhaps most dangerous – it is distancing, turning the "toff" into the kind of feral beast that exists only in tabloid headlines. It is worse than other forms of reverse snobbery because it so clearly links afluence and being upper class to criminality and fecklessness. The middle classes have always used language to distinguish themselves from those a few rungs below them on the ladder – we all know their old serviette/napkin, lounge/living room, settee/sofa tricks. But this is something new. This is middle class hatred of the snooty upper classes, pure and simple.
It is easy to dismiss this as "political correctness gone mad". But the words we use matter. The common use of the word toff creates a sense that this type of discrimination and stereotyping is acceptable and legitimate. Let's not replace the racist or bigoted language of the past with a new set of words that are just as hateful.
Part of the problem is about voice. When Little Britain, Graham Norton, and Jonathan Ross are given the BBC's green light to portray gay people in ways that many gay people are uncomfortable with, there is at least Stonewall to defend them (see their excellent Tuned Out
The BBC should specify the word in its guidelines for programme makers and take class discrimination seriously. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights should show that they understand class discrimination is an issue that can have effects as detrimental as racial or gender bias.
But more importantly, we must stop using it ourselves. Laws and regulation are important ways to protect the vulnerable and can effect social change but often the most dramatic social change happens as people gradually convince each other their behaviour is wrong, or it becomes socially embarrassing. Drink driving used to be the norm despite the law, now most people would be ashamed to admit to their friends they had driven home at the end of a night in the pub. It's that same social pressure that meant there was uproar at language perceived as racist in the Celebrity Big Brother House – a sense that we just don't speak that way to each other. From now on – embarrassingly PC though it may seem – we shall audibly "tut tut" and wince whenever we hear the word toff used. You should too. report from last year). But who does the white Upper class have? You might think they would at least have the progressive right, but it would seem not.