In a move beyond parody, this week has seen domestic goddess Nigella Lawson repeatedly explain that she knows how to say the word “microwave.” As she mashed potatoes on her latest BBC series, the national treasure/asbestos-handed TV legend referred to the microwave with a lyrical pronunciation—mee-crow-wah-vay—and everybody lost their shit. Today, the cook had to clearly explain: “I do say it like that, but not because I think that’s how it’s actually pronounced.”
The quickest way to stop people laughing is to explain the joke, to foolishly transport them from mid-wit laughter to thoughtful self-reflection and biting psychology. And the only thing worse than explaining why something is funny is explaining why it’s not. My feed is back-to-back tweets that deconstruct humor, killjoys and pedants immediately grounding any momentary flights away from terrible world news.
After my eyes rolled so far back into my head I could see the nape of my neck—because I truly believe that an adult woman who has her own decades-long career in gastronomy knows the correct way to say microwave—I tried to see what the issue was. I think the silly, affected pronunciation stems from our archaic British stuffiness, a hangover from being world-leaders in trifling, pompous, self-important ceremony, much like every episode of The Crown. These customs are ridiculous, but it’s a heritage we haven’t quite outgrown. We can easily send it up in a sort of vaudeville act as unsmiling Victorians whose sense of self pivots on precise etiquette. The deliberate mispronunciation is a sort of inversion of centuries of privilege, and the naughtiness of a convenient microwave. British pretensions around home cooking mean “microwave” can be a bit of a swearword: mee-crow-wah-vay is basically like saying “feck.” Wait a fecking minute, I’ve become one of the joke-explainers—the degraders of good times, the sponges of fun.
It feels quite Twilight Zone to have to say this, but Nigella obviously didn’t accidentally say microwave wrong. It was a cute (and deliberate) divergence that felt like a family in-joke rather than a nationwide side-splitter. It wasn’t a laugh-so-hard-I-need-an-adult-diaper moment. It was a little affectation, the type all families have to ease proceedings; household witticisms that make us feel close to each other, that remind us we’re all part of the group. But the group in the saturated and overwatered organism of opinions (Twitter) seems to be taking it all literally.
Is this the age of literal interpretation? Of achingly irony-free readings of intent? Everything is so immediately pounced-upon and dissected, it’s difficult to have any fun without having to explain your tongue is firmly in your cheek. Thousands of people are waiting online to ridicule the already ridiculous, or explain the blatantly obvious or the phonetically accurate, without a moment’s pause for the fissures of frivolity needed keep our societal wheels greased.
Perhaps this pernickety attention to detail is just the next logical step after years of falsification? We’re a post-truth population coming down so hard off fake news that we have no margin left for whimsy. Losing our acute sense of humor is understandable as grating reality wears us down. Perhaps we don’t need to laugh when we’re trying to survive? Perhaps every savage retort is really a reflection of our need to be uncaged? Perhaps we don’t need satire right now, because it’s superfluous to enduring these final stages of lockdown? Perhaps we just need microwave pronounced “microwave” and a solid time and date in the diary for our vaccination jabs?