News, Culture & Society

TOM UTLEY: Like Nigella Lawson’s, every family has its own funny phrases

Much as I love Nigella, I winced the other night when she told us archly that she had warmed some full-fat milk in the ‘meecro-wah-vay’.

Why does she insist on pronouncing the word like that, I harrumphed. She’s a grown-up woman, for heaven’s sake, who knows perfectly well how to say microwave.

All right, I was prepared to concede there might possibly be a time and place for such twee eccentricities — perhaps when talking to easily amused six-year-olds in the privacy of our homes.

But on prime-time BBC television, in front of an audience of adults like me who watch the repeats of her aptly named foodie-porn programme, Cook, Eat, Repeat? I don’t think so.

Now it emerges that meecro-wah-vay is barely the tip of the iceberg of Miss Lawson’s sins. 

For as my colleague Richard Eden reported this week, she has confessed that her family has a large vocabulary of similar words and phrases, deliberately distorted or mispronounced.

Instead of the word desiccated, she uses ‘desecrated coconut,’ she says, adding in an interview with Australian TV: ‘If I get a new appliance, I have to read the “destructions”. And if I’m on the way, I will say I’m “en croute”.’

As for the county of Worcestershire, where the sauce comes from, she tells us via Twitter that she pronounces it ‘Wusster-shusster’. Well, how very irritating of her, I thought.

Nigella Lawson has confessed that her family deliberately distorts or mispronounces a number of words

Annoying

She reminded me of an intensely annoying flatmate I used to have when I was a cub reporter. 

Every time this young woman brushed past me, she would exclaim: ‘Excuse I.’ It drove me half mad.

But Nigella is unrepentant. ‘It’s just a joke, mispronouncing words,’ she says. ‘And what’s quite interesting, as I found out afterwards, is that all families have those words in a way.’

All families, Miss Lawson? Speak for your own lot, I thought. 

Yet the more I’ve considered the matter, the more I’ve come to realise that, OK, she’s probably right!

Indeed, I blush to admit that even we Utleys have our fair share of private words and phrases, which we use regularly in the family nest.

Take that most delicious of fillings, praline, which I always grab first when a box of chocolates is being handed round. 

In my household, we pronounce it ‘pray-line’, though we’re well aware that it should be said in the French way (‘prah-lean’).

This is because, many years ago, a kind visitor who was unfamiliar with the correct pronunciation gave us an upmarket chocolate assortment, saying: ‘I hope you like pray-line.’

Like an idiot, I didn’t realise what she meant, and said: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever tried it.’

Only when she explained that it was a gorgeous nutty filling did I understand her mistake. 

And though I said nothing to embarrass her at the time, it has been pray-line in my family ever since.

It’s the same with the stuff we pour over our Sunday roasts. In our household, we call it ‘graveney’. 

Nigella Lawson poses with her 'chicken in a pot with orzo' as part of her Nigella's Cook, Eat, Repeat series

Nigella Lawson poses with her ‘chicken in a pot with orzo’ as part of her Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat series

Again, this has a long history, since the days when our third son had a group of friends who went to nearby Graveney School in Wandsworth, South London (among them, as he never tires of boasting, the England rugby star Kyle Sinckler).

In a slip of the tongue one Sunday lunchtime, the boy asked me to pass the graveney — and graveney it has remained. 

Meanwhile, inevitably, we refer to the local education establishment as Gravy School.

Oh, Lord, and now I’ve started, I may as well confess that lots of other words and phrases we often use date from our boys’ childhood, when they had trouble pronouncing difficult words.

An ambulance, for example, is a ‘blitzer’ (as a three-year-old, our eldest used to pronounce it ‘abbalitzer’, and the abbreviation has stuck). 

In the same way, a fire engine to the Utleys is a ‘fi-wi’ (pronounced like wi-fi, though the other way round).

Oh dear, and even at the age of 68 — and please don’t be sick at this point — I’ve been known to ask my wife if she fancies ‘anummaler chuppa-chee’, when what I mean is another cup of tea. 

Again, I blame our eldest, since he coined the expression in his infancy.

Awkward

Other words have been passed down the generations. 

In my childhood, for reasons long lost in the mist of time, a dishwashing cloth was a ‘lallup’ — and a lallup it remains in my family, well over half a century on.

You may even catch one or other of us speaking of a ‘tea-in-Malta moment’ — a phrase which must be totally incomprehensible to people outside our family circle.

Let me explain: this is the moment at a party when somebody tries to fill an awkward silence with a remark that kills any hope of conversation stone dead.

It had its origins at a dinner party many decades ago when my younger sister, then aged about 11, found herself sitting next to James Chichester-Clark, later Lord Moyola, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s.

After struggling desperately to think of anything to say to his young neighbour, the great man turned to her and asked: ‘Have you ever been to Malta, Catherine?’

When she said no, she’d never been, he confided: ‘Well, the tea in Malta is absolutely wevolting!’ (He pronounced his Rs as Woy Jenkins did).

‘Oh, is it?’ said Catherine, trying to sound interested. End of conversation.

The Prime Minister then had another go. He had Siamese cats, he said, ‘and they absolutely woool the place’ (he meant rule).

‘They what the place?’ asked my sister, before a kick under the table from a sibling shut her up, and silence reigned again.

As for the elder of my two sisters, she has been saddled all her life with the name Ginda. This is for no better reason than that when she was born, I myself was unable to say Virginia.

Guilty

But then she’s far from the only adult who is known to all her family and friends by a name she acquired through a childhood mispronunciation.

One of my cronies at the pub tells me he has a friend who has always been known as Tiff, since this was his attempt at saying Christopher when he was a toddler. 

Another tells me of a woman called Eunice, known to one and all as Boony.

I think, too, of my brother-in-law’s late father, ‘Tiger’ Urquhart, who was the Commandant General at Sandhurst. 

For many years, I assumed that he acquired the nickname through his well attested courage in World War II. 

That was until his widow informed me that he was given the name when he was three, because he liked crawling under tables and growling.

Before you write the Utleys off as the most disgustingly twee extended family in the land, are you quite sure your own conscience is clear?

If my researches yesterday are any guide, I’d say that just about everyone else is as guilty as we are.

One office mate sheepishly admits that in his family, a facsimile is referred to as a ‘famiscule’, because of his mother’s mispronunciation of the word long ago.

Another confesses that her lot pronounce the word womb as ‘wom’, because that’s how her uncle used to think it was said.

One Christmas, she tells me, her father caused her family great embarrassment in church when he belted out that line from Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: ‘Offspring of a virgin’s wom.’

Yet another friend admits that, where the Utleys pronounce the word another as ‘anummaler’, her family says ‘anaya’ — simply because in her early childhood, her niece couldn’t pronounce the letters ‘th’. 

Another, of roughly my age, says he calls ingredients ‘ingreedy-guts’.

So, yes, Nigella, I admit it. You’re almost certainly right when you say these verbal games are played in just about every family. 

But on sober reflection, don’t you feel we should keep them there, where they belong? 

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