How to talk posh

Rummaging around in one of my many little stashes of amusery, I stumbled across this – invaluable linguistic tips for up-and-coming copywriters and any other such lo-lifes:


Always — most “correct” pronunciations are unguessable from the spelling, so the uninitiated will give themselves away. Thus it is with “always”, as Kingsley Amis explains in The King’s English: “AWLwhizz is the thing to say if you can manage it. I never really can.”

Beaulieu — home to Lord and Lady Montagu, and pronounced (naturally) “Byoo–lee”. Any attempt to speak a name of French origin in a French manner betrays one as an outsider who strives to seem sophisticated.

Belvoir — as per the previous rule, this castle is pronounced “beaver”. Other rural retreats for the wellbred include those pronounced “badger” and “bugger”.

Cecil — pronounced Sissle.

Cholmondeley — pronounced “Chumley”. Best said while affecting a weary aristocratic ennui that is so overpowering one simply can’t be bothered to enunciate all the syllables of a long word.

clothes — Kingsley Amis: “I admit that I should rather like to be able to say close but from fear of being misunderstood do not dare.”

forehead — rhymes with “horrid”.

golf — in the good old days, was always pronounced “goff”.

hoi polloi
— Greek for “the plebs”. To say “the hoi polloi”, which means “the the plebs”, instantly identifies you as a pleb.

how d’you do — what to say when you meet the Queen. Do not follow the example of Kate Middleton’s mother, who said “Pleased to meet you”. Of course you are pleased to meet the Queen. She is the Queen.

infra dig — Latin, short for infra dignitatem, “beneath one’s dignity” or demeaning, as it would be to say “settee”.

jolly — means “very”, as in Boris Johnson’s memory of smoking cannabis: “It was jolly nice.” (If one must say “very”, one pronounces it “vair”.)

loo — or perhaps “lavatory”, but never “toilet” or “WC” or “bathroom”.

Magdalen College, Oxford — pronounced “maudlin”.

Magdalene College, Cambridge — also pronounced “maudlin”, in order to fuel the oik’s superstitious awe of the homogeneous “Oxbridge” class conspiracy.

marvellous — quite good. Only two syllables: “marvlous”.

napkin — not “serviette”, unless you are literally in France.

non–U — often attributed to Nancy Mitford, the terms “U” (upperclass) and “non–U” were first coined by the British linguist Alan Ross in his 1954 paper “Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English”. As well as noting the correct ways to address knights and baronets, and matters of pronunciation and vocabulary, it featured useful social observations: “When drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.”

orf — the right way to say “off”.

Orff — German composer most famous for his 1970s Old Spice adverts.

posh — the Non–U way to say “smart”.

rarely — means “really”.

res ipsa loquitur — Latin, “the thing speaks for itself”. As Harry Mount recently noted, so does Boris Johnson’s use of Latin as a weapon of bamboozlement.

riding — never “horseriding”, since the means of conveyance goes without saying: it is frightfully infra dig (qv) to ride anything else.

sofa — not settee.

waistcoat — pronounced “weskit”. Also say “offen” and “Wessminster”.

– how you should ask someone to repeat what they just said. “Pardon?” or “excuse me?” are insufferably euphemistic.

When experts are ‘wrong’

Watching PJ ‘O Rourke on a recent Newsnight unexpectedly coming out for Hillary Clinton – or, more to the point, adamantly against Trump – he memorably described her as being “wrong on almost everything…but within the normal parameters of ‘wrong’.”

It amused me at the time, but there was something nagging away in the background – it reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what it was. And then I stumbled across it – some thoughts I’d had during the latter stages of the Brexit ‘debate’:

Michael Gove’s “I think the British people have had enough of experts” must surely be one of the great political soundbites of our day.

Ok, so it’s come in for a lot of flak. And not only from experts. But I can think of no recent expression which so exemplifies the power of words to encapsulate and express not just  an idea, but a unifying gut instinct.

As such it reminds us of arguably the most fundamental truth of communication. That it’s a two way process.

However egregious, however disingenuous (I can think of no other politician of modern times with so high a regard for education and expertise than self-made Mr Gove), there’s no denying its power to encapsulate and exploit a pre-existing mood – to have ten million people unite as one in saying (mostly to themselves, probably, but what else really counts?) “That’s right!”

Being able to crystallise what people feel, saying what they would say themselves if only they had the power to do it, is surely one mark of a consummate politician.

In short, an expert.

Few people, of course, understand the power of words – or deploy them with such deft precision – better than PJ.


Sometime client Peter Sandbach, comms maestro at Roche, as well as one of their leading morris dancers, was kind enough to send me a link to his recent lively and robust TEDx assault on corporate gobbledegook – bizarrely denied full publication on account of its use of the word ‘bullshit’ – the central theme of the talk.

An interesting followup comment in the ensuing thread calling for full publication alerted me to an essay, subsequently book,  ‘On Bullshit’, written by one Harry G. Frankfurt, which suggests that the essence of BS is not that it is false, but that it is words used, whether in print or speech, not to communicate but to impress. Sounds about right to me.

A day or two later, I came across a review in The Guardian decrying the political version, as in:


Seems to be a lot of it about.

Making sure you say what you meant to say

Watching an episode of West Wing recently, and a couple of youthful campaign volunteers run in to show their boss, Will Bailey, a placard they’ve created, which reads:

It doesn’t matter how you vote – vote!

He suggests to them that while the overriding point is clear and the sentiment fine, the thing could perhaps be slightly more carefully worded. “How about ‘However you vote – vote!’, he suggests.

The scene reminded me of something I’d seen recently, but I couldn’t place it. Only on Saturday did it come back to me, while doing my weekend shop:


Now, I think Waitrose have some very capable people working on their comms – people who have helped craft and maintain one of the clearest and cleanest brand personalities on the high street. But I do wonder whether, as this would suggest, Waitrose have but one fundamental belief. Nor is there any real need to imply that they do. To me at least the thing also suffers from just a touch of stridency which I for one find out of keeping with that clear, clean and – no less crucially – calm and confident positioning. If it were me, I’d bring down the volume a tad, and take out the implied limitation on Waitrose’s beliefs, and go for, simply:

We believe few things in life are more important than the food you buy.