Life & Culture

There's only one way to say 'bagel' and it's not the east London way

A new ruling from the Craft Bakers Association on the pronunciation of ‘scone’ prompts a Mancunian to enter the vowel wars


Bagel with cream cheese on wooden table

It’s impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

So says Professor Higgins, the acerbic phonetics specialist in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady, for those, like me, who take their culture sing-along style).

It is a harsh position, though, in fairness, the play was written at the turn of the century before the benefits of multiculturalism were understood.

And yet even today you will find a passionate north-south division over the way some words should be pronounced, not least over the humble scone which has long triggered a bun fight.

Though one I am pleased to report that was finally settled when the Craft Bakers Association recently delivered a definitive verdict on the word’s pronunciation.

Following a survey a conclusive 60 percent of the association’s members decided that “scone” should rhyme with “phone”.

With this in mind, it is surely time for an authoritative verdict on the pronunciation of foods that populate the Jewish world.

Because let’s face it — trigger warning alert — Londoners have got it all wrong.

Let us start with the Jews’ slow-cooked traditional stew. You know, the one that simmers for hours, resides for many more in the pit of your stomach and puts you in a food coma.

It’s pronounced cholent, OK? As in pollen. It is not – not! — chulent. Switching the “o” for a “u” has a destabilizing impact on the texture of the word.

Cholent is redolent of our rich dietary history and is, in fact, first mentioned in the 12th century BC.

Chulent, meanwhile, has the gossipy ring of a north London WhatsApp group.

OK, disclaimer: I am a Mancunian.

Of course I favour the northern Jewish pronunciation of certain (all) words. And I fully accept my southern Jewish friends will disagree with me.

But this is not about taking cheap shots or firing bows and arrows across the north-south divide. When we remove the taste, the skin of these terms, we peel away their Jewishness too.

Look no further than the word for our sabbath day. You would surely never pronounce it “sobboth”, would you? I have certainly never heard anyone say “shobbot shalom”.

So why — nay, how? — have we arrived at a “good shobbos” rather than a “good shabbos”?

The flat “a” in shabbas is so open, so welcoming. The “o” is so closed and — dare I? — ghetto.

And if there is one serial offender in Jewish lexicography, a pronunciation debate that is guaranteed to divide us, it is the bagel. That’s bagel as in “bay-gul”, not “bygul” you understand.

Bygul reminds me of Dick Van Dyke’s attempts at cockney in the film Mary Poppins.

Bagel is affectionate, warm — a word that cosily agitates for a slick of cream cheese.

Bygul is hard and uncompromising, though I’ve eaten a few of those too, mind. (Have I mentioned that Manchester’s Brackmans’ bagels are superior to all others elsewhere in the country, thanks to the crisp exterior and soft fluffy interior we specialise in around here, and which Brackmans’ do to perfection).

Of course, given rising antisemitism, and the divisions between Progressive and Orthodox Judaism, the last thing we Jews need is more discord. So please accept that I offer pearls in a spirit of warm-hearted guidance.

And it is my warm-hearted conviction that we do some of our words a disservice in the way we say them.

One of them is vosht, that iron bar of the salami world. It must rhyme with “posh” not “push”. Vosht’s firm texture and position in our chill cabinets, if not our hearts, requires a strong, decisive pronunciation.

Vusht is hesitant, colourless and redolent of a delicacy that the hammer slam of this processed meat roll hardly delivers.

After the Craft Bakers Association’s landmark “scone” judgment, it is the time to nail down some agreed, instead of aggrieved, pronunciation, it is time lay to rest divisions over phonological variations.

And so with the hand of friendship, I urge southern JC readers to chew on a bagel and make the change.

Wishing you all a good Shabbes.

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