“Eton,” an Old Boy once told me with a smile, “is a four-letter word.” And in certain parts of polite society it’s as filthy as the worst of them. The left-leaning fringes of the British press use it as catty shorthand for unearned privilege and logrolling confidence. (But perhaps 20 prime ministers and the future King of England will do that to a place.) The alumni don’t use it at all. To them, it’s simply “School” with a capital S—which has the pleasing side effect of implying there aren’t, really, any others. (Ancient joke, Old Etonian: “Did you go to School?” Incredulous non-Etonian: “Well, of course I bloody did!” Old Etonian: “Ah—clearly not.”)
This is an inside joke about an inside joke, in case you hadn’t noticed. And the baffling use of slang at the school has a similarly alienating effect (to say nothing of the $52,000-per-year price tag). “Beak” instead of teacher; “chambers” instead of break time; “messing” instead of afternoon tea. This is Toff Towers, all right—the oofy cradle of England’s Establishment smoothies and chinless rulers. The old cliché is that Eton gives its boys an “effortless superiority.” Naturally, current P.M. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson went here—and he won’t even have had the silliest name in his dormitory.