Robert Colville: Say 'divissive' and wait for the nukular explosion

The word-manglers are infuriating those of us who know how to pronounce it

Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) in the BBC television comedy series Keeping Up Appearances.
Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) in the BBC television comedy series Keeping Up Appearances.

The word everyone's using about Thatcher, said my colleague, halfway through the meeting, "is divissive. But it's not that she wanted to be divissive. It's that she lived in a divissive age."

None of us knew how to respond. You couldn't correct him by dropping "div-EYE-sive" into a sentence - that would just be rude.

Instead, there followed a wonderfully British moment, as people coughed, and fiddled with their papers, and generally tried to move things along.

But then someone else, either in subconscious imitation or an effort to be helpful, agreed that the Eighties were indeed pretty divissive. Suddenly,a suspicion stole in on the rest of us that we might have been getting it wrong all these years.

Britons have long judged each other on their accents - witness Mrs Thatcher's strenuous efforts to go upmarket, as well as the scorn that greeted George Osborne's recent downward plunge.

But there's a special category of excruciation, of nails-on-chalkboard distress, that occurs when someone gets just the odd word wrong.

I'm not talking about the substitution of "garridge" for "garaaahge", or even the old ee-ther/eye-ther chestnut. I'm talking about the times when you've come across a word, probably only in print, and are forced to take a stab at it in public.

At school, I called a certain canteen staple "profee-terole" rather than "profit-": for years, its every appearance on the menu produced increasingly contorted impersonations, with the "ee" drawn out to ever more ludicrous lengths.

Granted, it's not quite as bad as being one of the biblical tribe of Ephraim, forced to come up with the correct take on "shibboleth" or face death. But being in touch with your inner Hyacinth Bucket causes problems of its own.

For example, any increase in North Korean bellicosity holds a special terror, because I know it will be accompanied, in certain quarters, by warnings over the "esculation" of "nukular" tensions.

One purist friend is unable to watch Supernanny because of Jo Frost's "unasseptable" enunciation; another complains of people pronouncing "machismo" as if it were a Scottish clan, and dropping the soft "h" even though it's a battle some dictionaries have abandoned.

But correcting such errors is tricky, partly because of the risk of being corrected in turn.

An especially mischievous friend (that's mis-chiv-us rather than mis-chee-vus, and definitely not mis-chee-vee-us) likes to order Moet, on the rare occasions that the opportunity presents itself.

This is purely so he can enjoy the gently patronising and increasingly unsubtle attempts to correct him from those who don't realise that (to invert Margot Asquith's observation about her first name) the "t" is not silent.

The great dividing line here is whether you object more to those who reach for words beyond their grasp, or those who insist on pronunciations others have discarded, simply to show off.

An old Africa hand grinds his teeth when the BBC replaces the proper "barb" in Zimbabwe with a pretentious "bab". Similarly, I can't help finding anyone who rhymes "conduit" with "pundit", or a Catholic who goes to "Marse" instead of "Mass", an ass.

Still, the minefields are endless. If you don't attend church, are you "impy-us" or "im-pie-us"? The rules say one thing, usage another. And you're never more than a syllable from disaster. When the director of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner, announced his resignation, I relayed the news to my colleagues, only to be told that his name rhymes with "tightener", not "Hitler". Let's hope they forget about it sooner than that bloody profiterole. Telegraph Group Ltd

- NZ Herald

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