I am distressed to see that the hateful expression “builder’s tea” doesn’t have an entry in Jonathon Green’s monumental, three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. “Builder’s bum” does, with its allied coinage – previously unknown to me – “Dagenham smile”; and, Green’s being a dictionary on historical principles, the first recorded entry in print, from 1994, is quoted in full: “His monstrous pink buttocks were being forced upwards and were protruding above his waistline like tumescent pillows (‘the Dagenham smile’, this phenomenon is called on London building sites).” This is from Joseph O’Connor’s The Secret World of the Irish Male and, if you think about it, while both neologisms must derive from a time when low-cut jeans coincided with a boom in the construction industry, “Dagenham smile” is more likely a self-attribution – said of builders by builders – while “builder’s bum” has the hallmarks of a slur.
Not least because “bum” is neither an especially cockney nor an Irish working-class ascription, both moieties being more inclined to “arse”. No, “builder’s bum”, like “builder’s tea”, is one of those modifiers of social class that can be smuggled into English via the capacious portmanteau of slang. Back in the day, from upper-middle on up, the term “chippy” was deployed with the same intent. Once again Green’s nails it: “in middle-class use and often as a means of dismissing genuine complaints, the implication is that such ‘chippiness’ has no real justification other than class-based resentment”.
Know you’re in the know
Naturally, the covert assumption that to be “chippy” is on a par with living off the income obtained from the surplus value of others’ labour remains uncontested, and the moral equivalence of so-called “inverted snobbery” with snobbery itself becomes established. To accuse middle-class people who offer their guests (though probably not those employed in refurbishing their properties) “builder’s tea” of snobbery would almost certainly call forth the rejoinder: “Oh, but I was being ironic.”
If they’re smart, that is. Stupid bourgeois who define certain commonplace Indian tea blends as befitting artisans (rather than as “artisanal”) tend to fluff at this point and say things like: “Oh, I don’t know what you mean – I drink builder’s tea,” as if this in some way constituted a levelling of the social pyramid. Irony does pertain to slang terms inasmuch as some examples have their foundation in the semantic shift occasioned between defined and intended meaning; irony can also have a dramatic or situational aspect – the disjunction between what the parties involved know – and this can be information of any kind, including linguistic.
Irony thrives on class distinctions for this very reason: by creating scenes in which diverse social groupings are thrown together, there are endless opportunities for some people to be “in the know”, while others are ignorant or disempowered. It is often said of the English – by themselves! – that their great capacity for deploying ironic tropes is what makes them such sophisticated folk. But might it behove the English (the rest of the archipelago is a case apart) to concede that irony is itself a measure of the steepness of the hierarchical acclivity?
The madness of the crowd thus consists in the assertion that “builder’s tea” is a value-neutral term, when it owes its existence to systemic inequalities that have increased over the past quarter-century. The great success of the British upper classes (and this does apply to the Scots, Welsh and Irish, as they have all long since taken their accent and slang from London) is in simultaneously mutating to accommodate the social mores of North American egalitarianism and teaching the newly rich to speak their own immemorial, subtly arrogant argot.
If you look at it this way, the sign that you have truly arrived is not that you can employ a chippie, but that you can damn him for being chippy; not that you can get in the builders, but that you can give your pals a choice between builder’s and Assam. In the fullness of time, the arriviste will find herself no longer cosseted by this new social position – and its linguistic perks – but trapped by them. Fretting in the claustrophobic ambience of dull dinner parties, she will look for a way out . . . a divertissement . . . As she takes the tray of builder’s to the builders, her eye will alight on a cheery Dagenham smile giving her the come-on . . .