Veddy Veddy?

A commenter on the previous post remarked that “uppity Canadians [from Ontario] are veddy proper Upper Canadians,” and a bunch of British people asked, basically, what the heck is a “veddy”? David Ballard replied:

It’s what Americans (and apparently Canadians) use when pretending to speak like a snobby British person. I reckon it’s what we heard/hear when that type of character (imagine those who populate Wodehouse’s books) says “very” in a confiding or authoritative way in old movies or, perhaps, in person. “My late uncle was a veddy important figure in the Raj, you know.”

My sense aligned with David’s but I was curious as to when, how, and why the custom started. The answer to the first, basically is 1932. That’s the date of the first example I could find, a one-sentence blurg in The Judge, an American humor magazine: “The Oxford Crossword Puzzle Book, veddy, veddy braincracking.” There are a bunch of other similar examples in the ’30s, which Google Ngram Viewer shows to be period when the term was not only introduced but skyrocketed in popularity, It leveled off around 1950, and has been up and down ever since.

(“Veddy” appears in some late nineteenth-century books as a rendition of baby talk, as in this quote from an 1894 book, stating that most men “sympathize with the little girl who, being asked if she had been good, answered, Not veddy good, not veddy bad–just a comferable little girl.”)

“Veddy” first shows up in the New York Times in a 1954 movie review by Bosley Crowther of a Danny Kaye movie, where he says that Kaye impersonates, among other characters, “a veddy British motor car salesman.” Crowther used the term about ten more times through 1967, no doubt contributing to its popularity.

But the backlash had already begun in 1954, when J.B. Priestley wrote an article in the Times about British accents. In it he commented:

“When some American writers want to have some fun with an English accent they make it say ‘veddy,’ presumably instead of ‘very.’ Now I pride myself on having a good ear but never. listening to every possible type of Englishman, have ever heard this ‘veddy.’ Where does it come from ? I find it veddy veddy puzzling.”

Not long afterwards, Edward Artin of the G.C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s dictionary, wrote in to the Times with an answer. I present it as my last word on the subject.

“Americans’ articulation of the r in very (in fact, of all r‘s) may be described as comparatively sluggish. On the other hand, when a Southern Englishman says very he often articulates the r by thumping the tip of his tongue quite lustily but quickly against his palate, producing, to the American ear, a dd effect.

“Now, when this same Englishman says eddy he articulates the dd by hermetically clamping the tip and sides of his tongue against his palate so as to completely shut off the outbreath for a split second (producing what phoneticians call a stop or explosive). His sound between vowels here is appreciably different to his own ear from his sound between the vowels of very, and hence on the basis of purely his own speech the veddy jibe makes no sense. The average American, however, does not cut off his breath for even a fraction of a split second when he says eddy: he articulates the dd by much the same thumping of tongue-tip against palate that the Englishman uses for r in very. Thus the American listening to a Southern Englishman may apprehend the latter’s Perry as Peddy, and vice versa.”

26 thoughts on “Veddy Veddy?

  1. This has always mystified me veddy much. As a “Southern Englishman” I can state that I never even touch the tip of my tongue on my palate, let alone thump it lustily, when articulating the R sound. I think it is time this veddy thing was abandoned!

    1. Also a Southern Englishman (South East, more specifically) and I don’t do that either. In fact, I’m not sure I recognise this ‘veddy veddy’ thing. BUT, my supposition is that maybe it’s when ‘very’ is said in Upper Received Pronunciation that this is what North Americans hear. If I try to imagine the voice of my late father – who spoke Upper RP-ish then I can kind of hear it. But while all* Upper RP accents are Southern, not all Southern accents are Upper RP.

      *I think!

    2. I *can* do “veddy veddy” if using an over the top Noel Coward impersonation (more over the top than is used from the clip of him from “In Which We Serve” embedded in an earlier comment), but it’s not used really anymore, and have never been used by the average southern Englishman (I am one of those, 60 years old). Posh people, it appears to me, are more likely to sound more like “veh veh” when saying “very very”.

  2. How bizarre, as ‘veddy’ doesn’t sound any English accent and certaintly not RP accent. It comes closest to a diction like Noel Coward’s which I understand was a style he adopted so his deaf mother could understand him. Some RP speakers pronounce ‘very’ as a single syllable often with the ‘r’ dropped away so it sound like ‘veh’. These days, those variations are less heard, in part as RP like other accents changes slowly over time.

    The mis-heading of the word as ‘veddy’ reflects something that all but the most widely-travelled are prone, that of being unable to reproduce accents from other areas/countries. Unless people are being deliberately xenophobic or are hard of hearing, ‘not understanding’ a different accent of one’s own language seems to reflect a lack of exposure to such differences.

  3. Sorry, but that explanation is just nonsense. Plus, there is no uniform “Southern English” accent in any event.

  4. Why the presumption that someone taĺking in an Upper RP accent is snobby? Should one assume that anyone using a non-RP accent is a chav?

  5. To the people who can’t imagine what the ‘veddy’ phenomenon is, in this clip, there are several points where a pronounced ‘r’ is followed by a vowel sound. You can hear the actors slightly tapping the ‘r’, in the manner of ‘veddy’.

    Regret 0.47
    Greed 0.49
    Entire estate 0.55
    Borrow 1.03
    Every 1.22

    Loitering 4.06 (Best example, I think.)
    I knew Margaret Rutherford wouldn’t let me down!

      1. You won’t hear a ‘DD’ because it’s more of a ‘d’. The prevocalic ‘r’ in the ‘cut glass’ RP accent of the early 20th century featured a gentle tap of the tongue on the roof of the mouth.
        Americans making fun of that pronunciation call it ‘veddy’ as an approximation: don’t take it too literally.

      2. Well put, Nick. And by the way, to my ears is more “velly” than “veddy.” And in any case it started to be remarked in (as the NY Times letter to the editor I quoted noted) in contrast to the American verrry drawn-out verrry.

      1. Certainly no D or DD sound that I can hear in that. Maybe someone should post a clip of an American saying “very”.

      2. That’s the problem. I can hear no difference between the American and the UK pronunciations.

      1. Hmmm. Paul Whitehouse doing his Rowley Birkin character, there, is more the lazy ‘vey’ or ‘veh’ in place of ‘very’. It lacks the tapped ‘R’ sound of what people have been calling ‘veddy’.
        Here is Jasper Carrot, who speaks with a Birmingham accent. He taps some vowel-sandwiched ‘R’s in the manner being discussed in this thread.
        ‘Corrugated’ 0.02
        ‘Parrot’ 0.59
        ‘Beware’ of 2.00

  6. I suspect that is a presumption made by North Americans who are not really aware of the minefield of British class and language possibilities; not that they should they be expected to.

  7. Lol, you might have heard ‘veddy veddy’ on Pathe News 880 years ago but nobody in the UK says ‘veddy veddy’ unless you live in the deepest of gentleman’s smoking rooms in Kensington and you’re about 90 years old. Or you go out wishing to get mugged.

    I always remember Wu Tang’s Ghostface Killah (charming) making a comment around the early 2000s that England was ‘full of tea trolleys and crumpets’. So again, US audiences seem to know little of ‘England’ outside of London and ‘English’ stereotypes that are mostly Victorian, and irrelevant to most of the nation.

    Except crumpets. That part is true. 😉

  8. So, in conclusion, Americans are making fun of us because they misheard an accent used by a tiny percentage of the UK population many decades ago. It’s a good job that we British have a sense of humour!

  9. The word is in David Bowie’s last album in the song “Girl Love Me”. “The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” … it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.

    You viddy at the Cheena
    Choodesny with the red rot
    Libbilubbing litso-fitso
    Devotchka watch her garbles
    Spatchko at the rozz-shop
    Split a ded from his deng deng
    Viddy viddy at the cheena

  10. The British comedian Paul Whitehouse’s upper-class character Rowley Birkin does a good “veh’ ” or “veh’i “for “very”, which Britons certainly recognise as a caricature of “extreme RP”, in his catchphrase “But I was veh’, veh’ drunk!” More common is “vewwy”, from the (many) Britons (“Bwitons”) who cannot pronounce “r”.

    1. Indeed, I have that problem.

      Incidentally, there is also in Dickens (for instance, Jo the crossing sweeper in Bleak House) the characters who say “wery”.

  11. It’s ‘veddy’ rare that an r is tapped so heavily in upper class British speech from decades ago that it actually sounds exactly like how ‘d’ is sounded (by some people some of the time) but I think I’ve found an example – listen to this Tolkien example at 01:53

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