Embarrassed by mispronunciations – and why I avoid buying French cheese


A friend of mine, who is something high-powered in financial services, made a bit of an arse of herself the other day when making a presentation to a bunch of financial advisers. Her typed briefing notes used the word “geographical” to refer to some new financial product – but her handwritten notes used the word “geographic”. Glancing from the typed version to her notes and back, she embarrassingly found herself unable to say either word and instead announced the launch of the new “geogoraphicorical” investment fund, to cruel sniggers from the assembled suits.

I was only partially sympathetic, since this was the same woman who once scoffed mercilessly at the pub quizmaster who mispronounced two popular French cheeses as “Bry” and “Cambert”. (Looking back, I see I’ve mentioned this in a previous post – shows how much of an impact it had on me.)

How we laughed, and K louder than anyone. This Bry and Cambert, were they tragic Shakespearean lovers, we wondered? Were they Victorian comic opera composers? Maybe they were a comedy duo like Morecambe and Wise, or Mitchell and Webb.

It must be a quizmaster thing; I was at a pub quiz the other week where the participants were stumped by the question “what would AOTP stand for if something was Orey and Assqueue?”

We puzzled over this for a while then I gave up and asked him to spell the words and he obliged with AWRY and ASKEW – the answer being All Over the Place. “Oh!” I said, light dawning, “awry!”.He gave me a funny look and said: “Yeah. Orey.”

Anyway, to return to Bry and Cambert, French pronunciation can be difficult. I once had to interview a French trade association leader (in English) about agricultural issues and he kept going on about the “Kutars”. Whatever these Kutars were he obviously didn’t like them – he got quite heated about them – but I was baffled as to what they might be, and of course the longer the conversation went on the harder it became to admit that I didn’t have the first idea what he was talking about. Kutars? Maybe some kind of boll weevil? An anti-farming protest organisation? His annoying next-door neighbours? The only thing I could do was nod knowledgeably and write down “kutars” every time he said it, in the hope that context would eventually reveal all.

When I got back to the office my editor asked if Jean-Philippe had said anything interesting about the agricultural quotas – I breathed a sigh of relief and managed to write a passably intelligent article.

Mispronunciations can rub off on the listener. I once worked with a French woman whose English was fluent other than her persistence in pronouncing “biscuits” in the French way, as “bis-kwee”. Since at the time we ate a lot of bis-kwee in the office, this method of pronouncing the word became pretty much ingrained in me and I still use it to this day. A similar thing has happened with cheese as a result of the quiz incident – if I’m not meticulous about buying Edam or Stinky Bishop or Parmesan instead, I know I’m going to end up offering dinner guests “Bry” and “Cambert” with their “bis-kwee”.

Pic credit: Rob Wiltshire, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1395

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