In Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter, Dorothy ends up travelling with a bunch of other homeless youths, one of whom is a cockney called Nobby.

He uses the word "Mulligatawny" as a slang word, but I've never heard it used this way anywhere else:

After Dorothy hands over her last coin:

'That's the mulligatawny!' he said. 'We've struck it lucky--and so've you, kid.

After she tells him her name:

'Ellen. That's the mulligatawny. No surnames when you're on the bum.'

When he's describing about going to pick hops to make some money:

‘Pickin’ ’ops—dahn in Kent! C’n understand that, can’t yer?’

‘Oh, hops! For beer?’

'That's the mulligatawny! Coming on fine, she is. Well, kid, 'z I was saying, here's us three going down hopping, and got a job promised us and all--Blessington's farm, Lower Molesworth. Only we're just a bit in the mulligatawny, see? Because we ain't got a brown between us, and we got to do it on the toby--thirty-five miles it is--and got to tap for our tommy and skipper at night as well. And that's a bit of a mulligatawny, with ladies in the party.'

From the above, he seems to be using the word in a couple of different ways — to express that he finds something agreeable (similar to "now that's what I'm talking about" or "that's the ticket"), or to confirm that Dorothy is understanding him correctly ("Now you're getting it"), but finally he seems to use the word to mean 'a tricky situation' or 'in a pickle'.

Does this usage have an origin outside the book?

  • 1
    In "we're just a bit in the mulligatawny" it looks like he's alluding to the phrase "in the soup" (meaning "in a pickle" etc). Using a more specific word in this way isn't uncommon in English slang (you might hear someone say "in the Branston" for "in a pickle", for example). The subsequent (final) use of the word "a bit of a mulligatawny" probably refers back to that. I'm not sure if this helps with the previous uses though.
    – Rupe
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 12:28
  • 1
    Mulligatawny is an Indian curry soup. I've never heard the term used for luck but 'in the soup' is known for bad luck
    – Third News
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 12:28
  • Yep, the final couple of examples make a lot of sense in that respect - it's really the first ones that don't seem to have a logical origin. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 12:31
  • On reflection, the first use in that third quote could be the same meaning, prefacing the talk of their being "in the soup" by saying "the soup's cooking up nicely".
    – Rupe
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 12:36
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    I’ve never read this book, but from the excerpts you’ve provided here, it seems that Nobby is supposed to just really like the word mulligatawny. Some people do that: take a word that they happen to like, and then use it for just about anything they can’t think of a better word for (much like Smurfish), and it looks to me like that’s what Nobby is doing with mulligatawny. Some of the ways he uses the word are probably authentic and were common; but I’m guessing others are supposed to be a bit nonsensical and sound highly idiosyncratic. Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:09

2 Answers 2


True Cockney is made up of two or three words, the last word has to rhyme with its English equivalent, however very often only the first word is said leaving the reader/listener pretty much in a muddle. Examples of Cockney rhyme are the following:

  • apples and pears = stairs, a Cockney might say: She's up the apples.
  • Boat Race = Face. Nice legs, shame about her boat.

sources for chicken soup and here. And for Irish stew.

In the case of mulligatawny the modern day meaning is the one listed below but the term mulligatawny as used by Nobby had a different meaning, far more innocent and one that fits in with the story. Mulligatawny is an Indian spicy chicken (or beef) soup, so the unclipped version could be Mulligatawny (chicken) soup, and chicken soup is often said to be good for you and hence it implies everything's fine/OK, or it might be short for Mulligatawny stew, which rhymes with true. So That's the mulligatawny could be Cockney for saying "that's the truth".

From Swearing A Social History of Foul Language Oaths and Profanity in English Geoffrey Hughes, The term, mulligatawny is modern cockney slang for horny.

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  • I also found that definition but I really don't see how it applies in this context! Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 19:10
  • That’s because it doesn’t rhyme with horny for the majority of native speakers.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 19:40
  • Soup doesn't rhyme with good so I'm not sure where that was from! I like the stew theory though - do you have any citations of it? Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:04
  • If you look at the links I posted you'll see that "chicken soup" and "Irish stew" are mentioned. As for pronunciation, remember this is (East) London, typically working class speech, so allow a bit of leeway. As for "that's the truth" it's the only expression which kinda made sense to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:14
  • Your citation for Chicken Soup isn't rhyming slang. Soup doesn't rhyme with good regardless of the accent! Second link says it's more likely related to 'Kosher' Commented Jun 19, 2014 at 21:17

In the examples, "mulligatawny" is being used to mean "the rule; the custom" or, in military terms "the drill"

The OED is helpful in deriving the probably origin:

mulligatawny, n. 1. A spicy soup originating in India. More fully mulligatawny soup

†2. Indian English colloquial. A European official serving in the former Madras Presidency in southern India. Obsolete.

1816 ‘Quiz’ Grand Master vi. 145 A well-known Mul. popp'd out his head. Note, An abbreviation for Mulkatany, a common appellation for Madras officers.

During the 19th century and the days of the Raj in India, many Indian words and expressions entered English, either through trade or the military. Of these, a good number survived in informal speech, especially those from the military.

It appears that mulligatawny has transferred its meaning to an aspect of the military officer - a form of synecdoche or metonomy: giving orders/stating rules/being an authority, and thus being the rules, order, drill.

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