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I would like to know what "that public schoolboy polish" means in the following sentences:

‘Yup,’ Will says. ‘We were at school together.’ I’m surprised. The other men have that public schoolboy polish, while Johnno seems rougher – no cut-glass accent.

‘Trevellyan’s,’ Femi says. ‘It was like that book with all the boys on a desert island together, killing each other, oh Christ, what’s it called—’

Lord of the Flies,’ Charlie says, the faintest trace of superiority in his tone. I might have gone to state school, it says, but I’m better read than you.

  • Lucy Foley, The Guest List, Chapter 12

This is a thriller novel published in 2020 in the United Kingdom. One hundred and fifty guests would be gathering at some remote and deserted fictional islet called Inis an Amplóra off the coast of the island of Ireland to celebrate the wedding between Jules (a self-made woman running an online magazine called The Download) and Will (a celebrity appearing in a TV show program called Survive the Night). The day before the actual wedding day, Hannah, the wife of Charlie (Jules' friend), arrived at the island and is now at the dinner party for the rehearsal dinner with only some selected guests. And during the party, Hannah hears how almost all the ushers went to the same school as Will.

In this part, I wonder what "public schoolboy polish" means. Does it perhaps mean that they have a sheen, a particular shine that would emanate from public schoolboys...?

But then, this is my small question, but is it right to understand that "public school" here actually means exclusive private schools in the UK, like Eton? This might be a fundamental question, but I am just wondering why it is "public" school when it is actually a "private" school.

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    No. In the UK Public schools are old, grand, fee-charging schools like Eton, Harrow or Rugby.
    – James K
    Apr 15 at 8:08
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    Polish doesn't necessarily describe something physically shiny. One of the standard definitions of polish is "freedom from rudeness or coarseness : CULTURE." Apr 15 at 15:17
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    These public schools (elite, very expensive) offer merit scholarships. Scholars board with princes (Philip + Charles at Gordonstoun, William + Harry at Eaton). The philosophy is to turn the coarse scholars into gentlemen that could converse with princes in the same accent. You can think of the adjective 'public' as meaning 'open' (and as opposed to private clubs). You can tell public school boys by their accent like you can tell birds by their song. It's that crazy.
    – PatrickT
    Apr 16 at 1:47
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    The term public schools reveals a great deal about just how aristocratic the Old Establishment is in the UK. By public it is apparent that anyone can go there (ie. not just the most elite landed gentry). The idea that the huge fees might be an obstacle to many simply does not occur - it goes without saying that "anyone" means "everyone who can afford the fees" Those who cannot, are, at the very least, not upstanding enough to belong to "anyone" though, very probably, they are just off the radar, completely. [1/2]
    – Rounin
    Apr 16 at 23:11
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    My favourite phrase which makes sense in both British English and American English (but means something completely different in each) is "Middle class children go to Public School" which, in American English, means "Children from normal working families go to state-run schools" and, in British English, means "Posh, rich kids go to exclusive, expensive schools." [2/2]
    – Rounin
    Apr 16 at 23:16
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If you go back 300 years or so, most people didn't get any education. Only the wealthy could afford it.

There were two types of education: Private education, at home with a tutor. Or Public education at a school. These schools became known as "public schools" in contrast to private tutoring. But they were always fee-charging schools.

Other types of school

  • "State school" (a school funded by the government, so no school fees)
  • "Private school" (a fee-charging school, but less grand than the public schools). Also "Independent school".
  • "Grammar School" A state school that has an entrance exam.
  • "Comprehensive school" A state school that doesn't select by entrance exam.
  • "Academy" A school funded by the government but run by private organisation.
  • "Faith School" A school funded by the government but run by a church or other religious organisation.

"Public school polish" is the accent, style, manner that boys learn at public school.

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    Your explanation of the origin of the term public is slightly different from e.g. what Wikipedia says: "Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholars — public because access to them was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation, or home location, and that they were subject to public management or control, in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors." And to be clear, public schools are a subset of private/independent schools 🙂
    – Tim
    Apr 15 at 17:02
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    In my experience I've noticed that some BrE speakers may not be aware of the term "public school", and I've sometimes heard it used to mean "state school", perhaps following the comparable AmE term for government-funded schools in the US.
    – Tim
    Apr 15 at 17:10
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    "grammer schools" can be either state or private depending on where in the country you are and the history of the particular school. Apr 15 at 19:51
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    You only need go back 50 years.
    – PatrickT
    Apr 16 at 1:31
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    @Tim Re: Wikipedia: The citation given on that line doesn't seem to support what they've said, though. Apr 16 at 12:46
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Public schools in the UK are fee-paying schools, of which Eton and Harrow are probably the most prestigious (but there are many less expensive ones). For an explanation of the name, see the Wikipedia page under 'Early history'.

Polish refers to a metaphorical 'sheen', a poise acquired from attendance at a prestigious school.

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    And Prime Minister Johnson is quite clearly the most polished of them.
    – PatrickT
    Apr 16 at 1:30
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    This is interesting to me as a native American English speaker, because here public schools are the normal free tuition K-12th grade schools and are differentiated from private schools that are costly and posh. In American English you'd swap public for private to have this sentence be easily understood here in the US.
    – jdf
    Apr 16 at 23:04
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    @jdf What you call "public schools" we call "state schools".
    – Rounin
    Apr 16 at 23:19
  • @jdf You shouldn't just swap the terms: public schools are private schools, just a particularly elite subset of them (called "public" for strange historical reasons). So the translation BrE-> AmE should be: 1) private school -> private school 2) public school -> elite private school 3) state school -> public school
    – Tim
    Apr 19 at 15:53
  • @jdf maybe a helpful comparison would be the status and prestige Ivy League schools have among US colleges; it's an historical grouping but one that's stuck around. (But to be clear, UK public schools are for secondary education (age 11-18); our Ivy League equivalent for higher education is probably Oxbridge, ie Oxford and Cambridge... or maybe the Russell Group)
    – Tim
    Apr 19 at 16:02
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In short: it means you have the accent and mannerisms of a posh upper-class person.


The other answers cover the basics, but I don't think emphasise enough the role of public schools in maintaining the UK's fairly rigid class structure. For example, 7% of the population of the UK go to private schools (which, confusingly, is a category which includes public schools), but as of 2017 29% of members of parliament did (and 74% of judges, from the next source). The families of public school attendees are significantly wealthier than the average (from this article arguing against them):

What particularly defines British private education is its extreme social exclusivity. Only about 6% of the UK’s school population attend such schools, and the families accessing private education are highly concentrated among the affluent. At every rung of the income ladder there are a small number of private-school attenders; but it is only at the very top, above the 95th rung of the ladder – where families have an income of at least £120,000 – that there are appreciable numbers of private-school children. At the 99th rung – families with incomes upwards of £300,000 – six out of every 10 children are at private school. A glance at the annual fees is relevant here. The press focus tends to be on the great and historic boarding schools – such as Eton (basic fee £40,668 in 2018–19), Harrow (£40,050) and Winchester (£39,912) – but it is important to see the private sector in the less glamorous round, and stripped of the extra cost of boarding. In 2018 the average day fees at prep schools were, at £13,026, around half the income of a family on the middle rung of the income ladder. For secondary school, and even more so sixth forms, the fees are appreciably higher. In short, access to private schooling is, for the most part, available only to wealthy households. Indeed, the small number of income-poor families going private can only do so through other sources: typically, grandparents’ assets and/or endowment-supported bursaries from some of the richest schools. Overwhelmingly, pupils at private schools are rubbing shoulders with those from similarly well-off backgrounds.

This segregation of the population, largely along lines of wealth/prestige, leads to attributes which are shared by the segment of the population who do go to these private schools. The received pronunciation accent (aka Queen's English) was actually first referred to as "Public School Pronunciation" in 1917, for example.

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    "average day fees". Should it be annual? 13000 quids a day seems high, even for "public" schools. Apr 16 at 6:55
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    @EricDuminil It probably means 'for day pupils' (not boarders) rather than 'fees per day' Apr 16 at 7:38
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Public school "polish and mixability" is also, at Eton, referred to as "oiling".

It wasn’t just Boris. Two years later, David Cameron arrived and I was immediately struck by his bottomless well of self-confidence. Nearly all the products of major public schools I encountered at Oxford possessed this savoir-faire.

At Britain’s best public schools, children don’t merely learn how to conjugate Greek verbs, they’re taught how to be successful adults as well. I don’t just mean they’re taught manners — though God knows that’s important — I mean they’re told how to win friends and influence people. At Eton this is referred to as ‘oiling’ and I imagine there are other words to describe the same thing at similar schools. Politics isn’t on the curriculum — it’s the sort of soft subject that’s only taught in the state sector — but it’s the no. 1 extra-curricular activity. Most of the public schoolboys I met at Oxford had spent the previous five years clambering over one another in an effort to become the president of this and the captain of that. As a result, they’d mastered the art of self-advancement.

https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/status-anxiety-the-etonian-difference

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    Could this be where the phrase, "He's an oily bastard, right enough" comes from? :-) Apr 18 at 7:19
  • Recent British history has taught us that British public schools equip their students not only with self-confidence and savoir faire, but also a sense of entitlement. Apr 22 at 19:10

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