Stan Carey has another fine post at Sentence first (“An Irishman’s blog about the English language”) discussing John Honey’s 1989 book Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor. He has some excellent quotes and anecdotes (one of which shows that Evelyn Waugh was horrible even as a teenager); I’ll pass on this excerpt about how people were pressured to talk “properly”:

There is little evidence that, in boys’ public schools at least, [RP] was systematically taught. New boys with local accents were simply shamed out of them by the pressure of the school’s ‘public opinion’. The prep schools, having pupils at an earlier, more formative age, were very important in this respect. In the decades immediately following 1870 there was a time-lag before non-standard accents died out among masters (and indeed headmasters) in the leading public schools. New appointees could be, and were, screened for accent. The boys’ reaction to that minority with ‘suspect’ accents who got through this screening depended upon their general effectiveness as teachers: a weak disciplinarian would find that his accent became another stick with which they would beat or bait him. In a popular man, respected for his teaching or sporting gifts, mildly non-standard speech forms were tolerated — even humoured — as part of the idiosyncrasies of a ‘character’.

Apparently an RP accent was “among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century.” Sheesh.


  1. In the comments: cultivated a plummy British accent.
    Where does this “plummy” word come from. Surely not plums?

  2. OED has a meaning for plummy referring to English upper class speech, and adds “Also occas.: drawling; indistinct, as though hampered by plums in the mouth” which doesn’t sound hugely plausible.

  3. Patricia Lawrence says

    Indeed, even Eric Partridge agrees with the OED and Webster’s that ‘plummy’ does come from plums, adding that prune and plum, which are the same word, through Greek may come from Phrygian. It is plain that in the age of Little Jack Horner, a plum pulled out was more desirable than we might think a prune plum to be. Webster’s speaking of a rich and mellow accent seems to nail it; but in singing a plummy voice is one almost too mellow sounding (OED, Shorter); I know what they mean.

  4. My dad was an officer without being upper-crust, but he was in the army anyway. The phenomenon you refer to is well illustrated in Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder seems to become an officer immediately he is enlisted.

  5. John Peacock says

    I have always thought that the word “plummy” came from the idea that someone speaks “with a plum in their mouth”. Certainly, putting something in your mouth and attempting to speak, you do end up with that sort of tone.

  6. Quite right too: keep the riff-raff out of our public schools and our army!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    ‘Apparently an RP accent was “among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century’
    This is to confuse correlation with cause.
    RP accents were (still are, even now) well correlated with class, which was (unsurprisingly) a major determinant of whether you ended up as an officer (like the unspeakable Ryder.)
    I’ve no doubt that today if you were to visit any UK hospital you would find a greater RP/non-RP ratio among doctors than nurses. I’ve no reason at all to believe that modern medical schools use this a selection tool; it just correlates highly with educational opportunity even now.

  8. Michael Caine acted well in Zulu but his accent was wrong for the part.

  9. Michael Caine was on the radio last night talking to Mark Lawson. He referred to Zulu, saying he initially went to audition for the part of a cockney corporal, but the part had already been given away. The producer said he looked like an officer and asked if the could do a posh accent. Caine said of course he could and he went on to get the part. But the best bit was his admission that when he introduced himself to another character on screen, he pronounced his own character’s name more or less as it was spelled: Gonville Bromhead. At the premiere, several members of Bromhead’s family were in the audience, and they all quietly told Caine afterwards that the name was pronounced Gunville Brumhead.

  10. ‘”as though hampered by plums in the mouth” which doesn’t sound hugely plausible’: it sounds plausible to me, because the whole “plums in the mouth” expression was sometimes used when I was a boy. In Scotland “bools in his mooth” was an alternative, where “bools” = marbles.
    As for the officer class, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in WWI was “Wullie” Robertson, who had been a village boy who’d joined up as a private. I take it that Sir William was called “Wullie” because that’s what his Scottish father called him, but I’m open to correction.

  11. Surely the plums-in-mouth image is not as good as “sounds like a man speaking with the Elgin Marbles in his mouth.” (Dylan Thomas, describing a Welshman who’d moved to London and sought to eliminate all traces of his native accent, although also ascribed on the internet to Brendan Behan in various contexts, so one might have borrowed it from the other over drinks.)

  12. Here’s a google find on Wullie/Wully Robertson’s accent.
    “When Robertson .. was now a full Colonel…he was 47 years old. .. he wasted few words.. To a long discourse with which he totally disagreed he would usually reply, not by argument, but by a grunt and a phrase which was also famous: ‘I’ve ‘eard different’ – and that was that. To the end of his days he dropped his ‘Hs’ – which may have been affectation as much as habit – and spoke with a roughish intonation which has sometimes been described as cockney, but I doubt that; his manner and his sayings seem to me to be pure Lincolnshire.”

  13. For me the connotations of “plums, etc in one’s mouth” suggest slurring or mumbling, which are not what I associate with “plummy”, a word which I don’t think I have actually heard but which often occurs in British novels, together with words like “rich” (not the person, but the voice), and is usually attributed to an affluent, portly older man who enjoys good food, brandy, cigars, etc, and speaks slowy and distinctly, “mouthing his words” and enjoying the sound of his own voice as well.
    From Your Dictionary:
    plum·my (plŭmˈē)
    adjective plummier plum·mi·er, plummiest plum·mi·est
    a. Filled with plums.
    b. Smelling or tasting of plums.
    2. Choice; desirable: a plummy leading role; a plummy job.
    3. Exceedingly or affectedly mellow and rich: a plummy voice.
    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing

  14. narrow margin says

    And let’s not forget Henry Higgins putting marbles in Liza Doolittle’s mouth to get her to speak “properly”, i.e., around the marbles so that the plummy speech is achieved.

  15. “plummy”, a word which I don’t think I have actually heard
    If you mean that nobody uses it in real life, I refer you to the comments to the post at Sentence first, the one that Language linked to. My question is “Why plums?” I like plums, and it reminds me of one of the great disappointments of my childhood at christmas: plum pudding (which contains no plums).

  16. Someone told me a long time ago that Germans describe an English accent (of what particular sort I don’t know) as the sound of speaking mit Kartoffel im Mund. True?
    They would have to be smaller potatoes than the sort we got for school lunch, which were often bigger than a boy’s head.

  17. Charles Perry says

    There was one exception to the rule that army officers couldn’t have a regional accent. It was OK to have a crisp Scottish accent, presumably because it suggested martial virtues.

  18. AJP, I am not sure I understand your comment. Of course I understand the primary meaning of “plummy” as referring to actual plums, but I meant “plummy” as referring to a type of speech. That meaning I have only run across in writing, in the contexts I mentioned above: always older, club type, etc gentlemen. Some older British actors (I can’t remember any names) seemed to specialize in that type of role, with a voice and delivery to match, rightly or wrongly that is the type of voice and accent that I associate with the word “plummy”.

  19. I’m talking about the metaphor for the accent. He says: When I was growing up in Australia, the flat, broad accent of the man on the street was considered lower-class. Those who wished to be thought of as cultured dahling, cultivated a plummy British accent.
    So, why plums?
    Someone told me a long time ago that Germans describe an English accent (of what particular sort I don’t know) as the sound of speaking mit Kartoffel im Mund. True?
    I don’t know about Germans, but it’s how Norwegians describe Danish speech. Norwegians think it’s frightfully funny and apt.

  20. rootlesscosmo says

    Isn’t it unlikely that fresh plums would have been available in England at Christmastime? As I understand it, the “plum” in “Little Jack Horner” is a dried plum, or prune (US usage.)

  21. michael farris says

    Some years ago, ‘plummy’ was used to describe a certain kind of voice timbre for female classical singers, especially some mezzos and contraltos.
    The meaning that I remembered was not desirable, a kind of tone that was simultaneously too covered, too chesty and too airy and unsupported at the ends of phrases.
    Looking at google, it seems to have undergone some kind of semantic shift and become a synonym for ‘rich’ or ‘full’. Very confusing.

  22. m-l, my impression is much the same as yours. When I have heard of plummy voices I have imagined that they are rich, mellow, pleasant to listen to in a cultivated way. I realize that I have even gone on to associate this with plush purply velvet, and with the taste of a sweet juicy ripe plum.
    This does not fit with the notion of speech impeded by things in the mouth. I have heard of people talking as if they had a potato, or a hot potato, or mashed potatoes in the mouth — sometimes in describing what one Scandinavian language sounds like to speakers of another, and sometimes in describing how a character in a book spoke. (Was it the headmaster at the prize-giving in the Wodehouse* scene where Gussie gets drunk and makes such an assof himself?)
    * his nickname was Plum, incidentally

  23. Very few wish to be the odd ball, thus the few conform or suffer.
    Marbles were popular method used in enunciating.
    Such phrases as “cane in vain would fall mainly on the brain.”

  24. Rootless: Isn’t it unlikely that fresh plums would have been available in England at Christmastime? As I understand it, the “plum” in “Little Jack Horner” is a dried plum, or prune (US usage.)
    No, it’s common to have plums all year round (at least in Europe, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them in the USA). People bottle them, stew them and put them in kilner jars — glass jars that have a rubber seal and a pressure-tight wire & glass cap. Jeremy Clarkson’s ancestor invented the kilner jar.

  25. “And let’s not forget Henry Higgins putting marbles in Liza Doolittle’s mouth to get her to speak “properly”, i.e., around the marbles so that the plummy speech is achieved.”
    And then she swallows one before learning to say “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”.

  26. I guess the marbles technique of perfecting your pronunciation is not limited to the English language. In the popular Soviet comedy from 1981 called Карнавал (Carnival) (not my favorite but anyway), the heroine arrives in Moscow from the countryside to become an actress and works on her diction by stuffing her mouth full of walnuts and saying tongue-twisters.

  27. Demosthenes is said to have used pebbles.

  28. Others find a good Burgundy works wonders.

  29. marie-lucie says

    putting marbles in Liza Doolittle’s mouth to get her to speak “properly”, i.e., around the marbles so that the plummy speech is achieved.”
    I associate a plummy voice (not speech) with older men, not with women of any age, whether Eliza Doolittle or Lady Bracknell. The higher tones of most women’s voices seem incompatible with the deep, sonorous tones required by the word “plummy”.
    As I understand it, the “plum” in “Little Jack Horner” is a dried plum, or prune (US usage.)
    In the modern Western world, we are used to having fresh fruit year round, but this was not the case a few centuries ago, when any fruits available were dried ones (canning or jarring came later).
    There are many historical “Christmas pie” recipes to be found on the internet. A Christmas pie seem to be a “plum pudding”, sometimes with a top crust.
    It is interesting that the amount of “plums” in those “plum pudding” recipes is always much less than the amount of other dried fruits such as raisins and currants which are the main fruity ingredients, and some of the plainer recipes do not even include plums. A few dates are usually mentioned along with the plums, and at least one recipe mentions orange or lemon rind: all exotic, expensive ingredients available only to the rich. Even dried plums must have been a relatively expensive item, so that Jack Horner considered himself lucky to have found a plum (now thoroughly softened by cooking). Perhaps the “plummy” voice (which I associate with an affluent, well-fed older man) comes from the expensive “plummy” type of pudding, which was only eaten at Christmas, still now a time of culinary indulgence.

  30. m-l, plum pudding in England doesn’t contain plums in any form.

  31. To David L, AJP Crown, and O: French, too, has the expression PARLER AVEC UNE PATATE CHAUDE DANS LA BOUCHE, meaning “to mumble”, but often used to describe the acoustic effect of English. The similarity to the German + Scandinavian expressions is unlikely to be coincidental: where was this expression first coinced, and when/how did it spread, I wonder?

  32. Me too. And coinced is a word with a lot of potential.

  33. Ah! plum duff then plum “pudd”, my Grandmother use to make it for all the family, natural, and extended, it was so rich with preservatives, Rum & Brandy, so available to travel the seven seas {So un PC , worthy today of spending time in the klink} that two bites would be filling, 3 score and 10 ago, thus asking for more with a mouth full, got you a retort, “do not speak with a plum in your m’uth ”

  34. Cockney seems to have attracted particular condemnation. Just over a century ago, the Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools concluded that “the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire.”

  35. Prunes are a variety of plum. They can be fresh or dried. Louis Pellier imported cuttings of prunes from France and grafted them on to native wild plum trees in 1855 to produce the famous Santa Clara Valley prune. Before the advent of Silicon Valley, prune-growing was a major industry in the region, and has left many place-names behind, such as Pruneridge and Pruneyard. See
    Most prunes were dried for sale, hence confusion about the name arose in places where fresh prunes were never sold.

  36. I found this on another site:
    Botanically, plums and prunes of the European or Domestica type belong to the same species. The interchangeable use of the term “plum” and “prune” dates back for several centuries. Plum is Anglo-Saxon, and prune is French. Originally they were probably synonymous. It is uncertain just when the word prune was first used to designate a dried plum or a plum suitable for drying. The prune is a variety of plum that can be dried without fermenting when the pit is left in. Fresh prunes, as compared with plums, have firmer flesh, higher sugar content, and, frequently, higher acid content. A ripe, fresh prune can be separated from the pit like a freestone peach, but a plum cannot be opened this way.
    Also, it was actually 1856.

  37. marie-lucie says

    AJP: m-l, plum pudding in England doesn’t contain plums in any form.
    It must have contained plums at some point in order to acquire its name. The old recipes are quite varied: some contain a great variety of ingredients, including expensive (at the time) spices, dates and orange peel, and the main fruits are always raisins and currants (from different subspecies of grapes), and a smaller amount of plums. Other recipes have fewer ingredients, and some do not have any plums at all.
    My interpretation is that plums may have been a relatively expensive ingredient that the average household could not always afford, but people still made sure they ate a Christmas pudding which was as close as possible as that of the more affluent. So they too ate “plum pudding” at Christmas, even if the amount of plums was reduced to zero. With time the now plumless pudding kept its name, even though the general recipe no longer included plums.
    Etienne: French, too, has the expression PARLER AVEC UNE PATATE CHAUDE DANS LA BOUCHE, meaning “to mumble”
    This phrase, with which I am not familiar, is most probably a calque from English. There is no such phrase in the TFLI under patate, not even just patate chaude, and no association of patate with any form of speech (the entry includes phrases from Canada and other francophone regions). Under parler there is hardly anything relevant either. On ther other hand, under mot I found the familiar phrases manger ses mots, manger (ou avaler) la moitié des mots. (manger ses mots is not at all the same as English “to eat one’s words”, it means ‘to pronounce one’s words as if with one’s mouth full’).

  38. marie-lucie says

    In French, a plum is une prune, and a prune is un pruneau. The best pruneaux come from Agen in the Southwest. They are not fully dried and can be eaten without cooking. Another derivative is une prunelle which means a “sloe” (a small plum-like fruit but not sweet at all).
    It is possible that English prune referred to imported dried plums, plum to the locally grown fresh fruit.

  39. I believe that in the US the people who sell dried plums, i.e. prunes on US parlance, have recently moved away from calling them prunes and started calling them dried plums. I think this is because the word “prune” has become associated with old people and constipation remedies.

  40. That’s possible, m-l. Don’t forget that Christmas pudding contains brandy (cognac), or is doused in it and lit (Christmas pud flambé), so it was never exactly a poor man’s dessert.

  41. Speaking of potatos, that’s an expression in Dutch as well, to say of somebody speaking posh that he or she speaks with a hot potato in their mouth (“een hete aardappel in de mond”).

  42. TonstantWeader says

    “And four years before Stalky and Beetle had carefully kicked McTurk out of his Irish dialect!”
    -Kipling, Stalky & Co., “In Ambush”
    McClure’s Magazine (August 1898), and subsequently collected in Stalky & Co. (1899)

  43. I think it’s true that a child picks up their adult accent around age 11 or so. From his contemporaries, not from his parents. That’s what I did, anyway. It’s a mere coincidence that I was in boarding school at the time. I didn’t get kicked because of my accent, although I did receive a nickname based on it, which lasted a year or so.
    It seems to me unlikely that M’Turk would have had an Irish accent anyway. He was obviously a member of the Ascendancy. Kipling describes him as being worshipped by his tenantry.
    I fondly imagine the ancestral M’Turk mansion being torched by the IRA in 1920 during Cogadh na Saoirse, and M’Turk retreating to England to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, going cap in hand to his old schoolmate Beetle Kipling to beg for a job, and being sent to Afghanistan as a stringer to report on the doings of Stalky Khan.

  44. Aardappel is a nice name for the potato. Whereas erdbeer for strawberry in German sometimes sounds (to me) like it’s a bit dirty.

  45. Although you could say aardappel is a bit like “the Venice of the north” in that it doesn’t work backwards. In other words, you couldn’t call apples “tree potatoes”.

  46. It’s Erdbeere, in Dutch aardbei. For potato in German, there’s Erdapfel as well as Kartoffel, but mainly used in Austria now. Strangely enough, when I first went to Austria, they used to call strawberries Ananas (pineapple). Apparently it all has to do with distingushing the wild strawberry from the large cultural variety “Fragaria ananassa” (German explanation: ; scroll down to the answer by Javier Rodriguez).

  47. That’s really shocking. Strawberries are my favourite fruit and ananas is my worst nightmare (I’d drink poison before I’d eat a pineapple).

  48. most probably a calque from English
    Dictionnaire historique du français québécois:

    Depuis 1942. (Referring to Les pamphlets de Valdombre, mars-avril p. 39) L’image paraît avoir été empruntée à l’anglais: cp. le verbe potato-mouth «to mutter» et l’adjectif potato-mouthed «which never utters plain terms» (v. OED Suppl. 1982 s.v. potato).

  49. “At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy, every gesture becomes pontifical, and a fearful creeping paralysis slows down the pace of the dialogue.” –Dorothy L. Sayers on how not to perform religious plays
    maidhc: Surely he had an Anglo-Irish accent, just not a Hiberno-English one. The former accent must be pretty dead by now. In any case, the real M’Turk, George Charles Beresford, made a pretty good living painting, making tintypes of famous people for the newspapers, and antiques dealing. The ancestral seat of the Marquesses of Waterford, Curraghmore, is very much with us. The present Marquess (born) went to Eton and probably speaks Conservative RP.
    Capability Crown (a very glorious nickname indeed!) might enjoy the following description of the pineapple: “A prolific and dangerous weed, edible only by a happy and irrelevant accident.” –James Blish

  50. “School?” enquired the adjutant. I told him and his face fell. He took up a printed list and searched through it. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m afraid it isn’t a public school.” I was mystified. I told him that my school, though small, was a very old and good one – founded, I said by Queen Elizabeth in 1567. The adjutant was not impressed. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “But our instructions are that all applications for commissions must be selected from the recognised public schools and yours is not among them.”
    R.C. Sherriff’s accounting of applying to become an officer in 1914. (The school, as it happens, was Kingston Grammar School.)

  51. JC, I believe the architectural historian Mark Girouard is a grandson of the Marquess of Waterford (not the current one).

  52. As we’ve discovered before, potatoes are also called “groundpears” in some German dialects. I used to think it was “groundberries” but somebody straightened me out. Birn-, not Beeren.
    I don’t know any reason not to try calling apples “tree potatoes”.

  53. marie-lucie says

    Potatoes originate in South America and were brought to Europe from there by the Spanish, who also imported a local word. Pomme de terre or Erdapfel are not adaptations of the Spanish import but a local description (the German one probably a literal translation from French). I don’t know about apple/Apfel, etc, but in French une pomme does not only mean an apple but all sorts of other things: a pine or fir cone (une pomme de pin, etc), as well as a large number of roundish fruits or vegetable appendages, and also some roundish objects such as the “rose” of a watering can (une pomme d’arrosoir)(the TFLK gives a long list of the various kinds of pomme, fruity and otherwise). The derivative un pommeau means the rounded top of a walking stick or the roundish part of a saddle in front of the rider . The word pomme itself is from Latin pomum which means more generally ‘fruit’, so une pomme de terre is more generally an ‘earth fruit’ than literally an ‘earth apple’.

  54. mollymooly says

    I wondered why “prune juice” was not called “plum juice”. It is made from prunes, but by the definition of “prune”, it’s not juice. “Prune smoothie”? “Proothie”?
    “The former accent must be pretty dead by now.” No indeed. Trinity College’s current Senators have various Anglo-Irish accents. The continued separateness of Catholic and Protestant schools allows odd wrinkles of historic division to persist.

  55. the Spanish … imported a local word
    Two words. Quechan papa (Solanum) and Taino batata (Ipomoea). From which they apparently made patata for the former in other dialects. Which English borrowed as potato for both. (Well, first for the second, then both, and now we say sweet to distinguish.)

  56. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, I remember a long exchange about the origin of “potato” (sweet and otherwise) perhaps three years ago here.

  57. For “(born)” read “(born 1937)” above.

  58. in French une pomme does not only mean an apple but all sorts of roundish objects
    oh, thanks, marie-lucie, I’ve often wondered why pomme-de-terre is linked to pommes.
    Do you think it’s also the source word for pompom/pompon? My oed says it’s from French, but the French word is ‘of unknown origin’.
    Pommeau is also apple-based fortified wine, in strength in between cidre and calvados. Which brings me back to sloe/plum – sloe is probably linked to sliva – plum in many Slavonic languages (slivovica – plum brandy).

  59. Why do Australians call the British “poms” or “pommies” or “pommy bastards”? Is there a connection with pomme?

  60. Crown: The etymology is immigrant > jimmygrant > pomegranate > pommy > pom, believe it or not. The first step is rhyming slang, the second a taboo deformation, and the third widened the semantics from ‘immigrant’ to ‘any Briton, immigrant or not’. All this is traced by the OED in newspapers of the period; they even found someone saying “Now they call ’em ‘Pomegranates’ and the Jimmygrants don’t like it” in 1912.

  61. I was once told over a pint of bitter by some Ozzie and Kiwi drinking companions of dubious linguistic qualifications that it stands for Prisoners Of Mother England, a reference to Oz’s past history as a penal colony, the implication being that Ozzies are now free but the British (or should I say English–Picky has me all confused about nomenclature) are not.

  62. Thanks, Cohen. That’s all very interesting.

  63. marie-lucie says

    it stands for Prisoners Of Mother England
    Some people seem to want to recognize acronyms in words of dubious origins or meaning, and invent words to fit the letters. It is a modern version of folk etymology.

  64. “Cohen”, furrfu.

  65. Cf. Tom Wolfe’s entertaining discussion in “The Right Stuff” about how airline pilots all tended to talk with a West Virginia accent, because they were ex-military, and in the military the fighter pilots were the elite, and the fighter pilots emulated and looked up to the test pilots, and the best of the test pilots was Chuck Yeager, who came from a valley so far up in the backwoods that they had to pipe in the daylight.

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