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Lock Jaw vs. plummy

Posted by Word Camel on October 28, 2002

In Reply to: Looking posted by James Briggs on October 27, 2002

: : : : : : I had the following suggestion today. I haven't done any personal research into the phrase, or looked in our Archive - things really crawled along my internet connection this Saturady evening - 3 minutes to load this page!
: : : : : : Here's what I had. Comments please.

: : : : : : I have been told the origin of 'speaking with a plum in your mouth', and I wondered if you have come across this, and if so, whether you could confirm it? I was told that once upon a time, false teeth were made either from teeth removed from dead soldiers or pieces of bone. Whichever, the teeth were then set in lead 'gums' which were hinged at the back (much like the joke false teeth of today by the sound of it). This forced the wearer to speak in a strange way in order to control the teeth and cope with the spring hinge. The real saying should really be 'plumb' (lead of course), not 'plum'. It would make sense, as I have always been puzzled about 'plum', it's unlikely that anyone would actually manage to speak at all if he was able to fit a whole plum in his mouth.

: : : : : I'm looking but I haven't found it.

: : : : What does the phrase mean? I'm unfamiliar with it. If it means to speak indistinctly, then the improbable image of a plum makes sense. If it means to speak carefully, perhaps someone mis-heard "speak with aplomb" ... all of which is speculation.

: : : It's a British phrase which means to speak with an affected, supposedly upper class accent. It is somewhat derogratory. It's not used too much these days, since the so-called upper class now speak much like the rest of us. However, it's certainly detectable in old British films - it makes me cringe!

: : Do you mean the lock-jaw way of speaking? Like Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island?

: I guees so, but I'm unfamiliar with that phrase! Shades of 'two nations separated by a common tongue'

Do I have the right accent?

I heard the adjective, "plummy" applied to various people in the UK. My understanding of this accent is not just that it's posh, but it does indeed sound like the person speaking has something in his mouth and it's often difficult to understand an entire sentence because words are both clippled and blended together.

For an example, watch The Fast Show (a.k.a Brilliant! on BBC America). Paul Whitehouse has a character who is a retired army officer of some kind who tells stories about his adventures. His speech is quite garbled and it's only possible to make out the odd word or phrase here and there. He usually ends by saying something like "I'm afraid I was terribly, terribly drunk". My British friends, is this what's meant by plummy?

As far as I can tell, a lock jaw accent is uniquely American. I have always thought it sounded rather like Americans attempting to put in an English accent by elongating certain vowel sounds. I had a friend whose relatives on her father's side were a very old, prominent family in California. She would return to New York after visits to see them complaining of a sore jaw and tension headaches. It took her a week or so to sound normal again.

For British readers, the best example of this on British television is Lloyd Grossman.

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