Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.

Ready?

Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part eightish

What does the world want to know about Britain lately? Let’s take a stroll through the questions that lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Is that a fair way to answer the question?

Probably not.

Do I care?

Oh, absolutely, but not enough to keep me from writing the post.

How’d-that-land-here? questions

“I won’t answer the question polly put the kettle on answer.”

Now that, friends, is a very strange thing to type into a search engine. It’s even stranger that it led someone here, although part of it has a vaguely familiar sound, as if some bot picked up a bit of something I wrote (or that someone else wrote in a comment), tossed it in a jar with a few spare words from someone else’s blog, shook the jar until they blended, then poured them onto the keyboard and hit Send.

It’s even stranger for using a capital letter. Think of capital letters as clothes. Most search questions run through the internet bare-ass nekked.

Anyway, if the writer won’t answer the question (remind me, someone: what was the question?), I won’t either, but I will say that I understand how a phone can be put on answer, although I don’t think that’s what anyone calls the process. Still, whatever you call it, you punch a bunch of buttons and record yourself trying to say you’re out while not admitting that you’re out because you don’t want someone to hear your message and think, Aha! They just said they’re out. I’ll go break in and steal ’em blind.

Once you’ve done all that, the phone answers itself, bypassing you entirely and raising the question of whether you add any value at all to the transaction.

The kettle, though? I keep hearing that machines are getting smarter, but so far all my kettle does is boil water. I talk to it sometimes. I even sing to it. It doesn’t answer.

A final note before we move along: “polly put the kettle on” is not a question.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: Thrift. I really need to get out and take some more photos.

“what figure of speech is a thousand miles.”

Um, gee. I’d have to say it depends how you use it.

A figure of speech is a word or a set of words that are used to mean something other than its literal meaning. So a thousand miles can mean a thousand miles. One, two, three, and so on until you get to a thousand. That’s literal. No problem unless you get into the whole question of how long a mile is, because an old-style Cornish mile measured 3.161 etc. to nine decimal points of our current miles.

But let’s stick with the standard mile. I can sow enough confusion with needing help, thanks. Stick to the literal meaning and it’s not a figure of speech.

If you were to write, “My love is like a thousand miles,” you’d have written a lousy line but it would be a figure of speech—a simile, pronounced SIM-ill-ee, which I mention because written English contains almost no clue about how to pronounce a word and also because I have nothing better to do with myself. So sure, you probably already knew all that, but I’m having fun here.

A simile is two things compared openly, using like or as. Or possibly some other words I’ve forgotten, although I don’t think so. I’m not paid to know this stuff anymore, so I threw it all out of my head to make space for more useful things. Like the Cornish mile.

I wasn’t using it anyway and until today I didn’t miss it.

If you write, “My love is a thousand miles,” your writing would still by lousy but you’d have moved on from a simile to a metaphor, where like or as drops away and the comparison goes underground.

If you delete “my love is” and instead dropped “a thousand miles” into a sentence so that it stood for your love, it still wouldn’t make any sense but it would be a symbol. Of something.

We’ll skip the fancier stuff, like synecdoche. But aren’t you glad someone asked?

For the record, my love is not a thousand miles. She’s on the phone in the living room at this very minute, talking in a very un-thousand-mile-like way.

“guy stickney the night light linked in”

We’re going to have to disassemble that and see if any piece of it makes sense. Stickney’s a real last name, and I happen know a guy who carries it. His first name is not Guy. I don’t know him well enough to know if he uses—or even owns—a nightlight. Or if he uses LinkedIn.

Somehow I don’t think any of that is what whoever wrote that was looking for.

How’d the question get to me? I’ve used the words the, and in a lot, but I’m pretty sure everyone else on the internet has too. I’m sure I’ve used guy, night, and light, and probably even linked. As far as I can remember, I haven’t connected them in any way that would draw a search question.

Lord Google moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

“deer plot seeds”

They do? And here I was, thinking they’re all little innocent creatures who gambol around the forest and eat grass. Or leaves. Or something vegetabilian.

No, that’s gambol, not gamble. Cab drivers gamble. Deer? No, even on the evidence of this question, they may plot, but they don’t gamble. They weigh their risks carefully and don’t make their move till their sure.

What are they plotting? I’m not sure. I don’t understand what it means to plot seeds. To seed a plot, yes. To plot in general? Sure, no problem. But plotting seeds is like plotting shoes: There just doesn’t seem to be much point to it.

Still, keep your eye on those innocent-looking creatures. They’re up to something, and we’ve been warned.

“how could smart glasses do more thing”

I don’t know. This is not a technology blog. You should talk to my kettle.

“w87g”

Yes. Or possibly no. It depends on time, place, and circumstance. Also on meaning.

“t6y6”

This is clearer, The answer is no, absolutely not.

If anyone has a theory (no matter how crackpot) about how these last two questions got to me, I’d love to hear it. The first I wrote off as a glitch. With the second, I’m starting to see a pattern. One more and it’ll be a conspiracy.

“pees women pants”

With this one, you have officially seen me speechless. Or at least you’ve read me smart-answerless. Is this a search for the kind of women’s underwear meant for people with incontinence problems? Is someone looking for highly specialized pornography?

Either way, I seriously doubt I was any help.

Let’s try a new category.

What’s Britain really like?

“british talk about weather outside.”

Weather in Britain happens outside. It’s one of the things that lets you know you’re in Britain, not Canada or Cambodia, where (as I’m sure you know) they bring their weather indoors.

For some years now, British politicians have turned themselves inside out trying to define British values—it’s one of those placate-the-anti-immigrant-lobby things—and they’ve failed spectacularly. It’s kind of endearing, the hash they’ve made of it. If they want to know what British values are, they should ask their nearest immigrant. We could tell them: British weather takes place outside, and British that people talk about that.

To get the right to stay in this country, since I am my nearest immigrant, I had to take an entire damn computerized test to prove I understood British culture. Why didn’t they just ask me about outdoor weather? Talk about wasting taxpayer money.

Next question, please.

“do british homes have mailboxes”

Yes.

What are they called? (I’m adding this. No one asked.)

(That’s not true. I asked some time ago, and finding the answer wasn’t easy. Probably because I looked in the wrong places.)

Letter boxes.

Are they boxes?

Not necessarily. Ours is a slot in the door.

Why are they called boxes?

Because. It’s English. Abandon logic all ye who hope to master this language.

“do british people eat notmal cookies”

Um, no. Some eat oatmeal cookies. Some eat normal cookies. None, as far as I’ve been able to find out, eat notmal cookies, although British English is (a) regional and (b) inventive as hell, so I’ll never be completely sure.

“chocolate chip cookies in Britain”

British people do eat chocolate chip cookies, although that should probably be some British people eat these. So many internet searches are fixated on what all British people do. Get born. Breathe. Die. Beyond that, you’ll find a lot of variation.

Chocolate chip cookies in Britain often seem—I don’t like to say this—a bit disoriented. They’re not used to the range of accents. The oven temperatures are measured in centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. They’re trying to locate their friends the Notmal family, who aren’t in the phone book. (You remember phone books, right? Am I the only one around here who’s getting old?)

Basically, chocolate chip cookies are immigrants. Adapting is never a smooth process. Be patient with them. Eventually they’ll understand that the British weather is outside and you’ll be able to have a very nice conversation with them about that.

“why doing british people know what brownies are”

Because brownies are sold here. If you buy one in a café, you may have to excavate it from under layers of ice cream, whipped cream, fudge sauce, chocolate sprinkles, and tiny American flags playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but if you keep your nerve you’ll find a brownie down there somewhere.

“what people guy night”

Why, those people over there.

This probably has to do with Guy Fawkes night, which I did write about, and which may be responsible for me receiving all guy-related internet searches from now until forever. I’m not sure about the “what people” part of the question, though. The British ones? Probably. You can identify them by their confusion over what their values are.

“what are american biscuits called in england”

If this is about baking powder biscuits, they’re not called anything unless you’re at my house. They only exist if I make a batch, and I call them baking powder biscuits so people don’t take one thinking they’re funny-looking cookies and then feel disappointed.

On the other hand, if this is about the kind of biscuits you eat with cheese, they’re called biscuits. That’s to distinguish them from the things Americans call cookies, which are called biscuits.

Clear? Want to read about the Cornish mile?

“do the english get confused between the names ‘england’ and ‘britain’”

No more than the Americans get confused between the names Minnesota and Upper Midwest, or California and West Coast, or Massachusetts and New England. They leave it to Americans to get confused about. It’s a handy division of labor and it’s worked well for the country, although I’m not sure it’s done the U.S. any favors.

I suspect the rest of the world has less trouble with this, but maybe that’s just my ignorance speaking.

“why are people called great Britain”

They’re not.

“why is great and why is Britain”

Yes. Both.

“are drinks stronger in britain”

No, but water’s wetter. And the air is airier.

“letter from an English friend talking about how they bake lemon bread”

Sorry, but I didn’t get the letter. And my feelings were hurt by that.

“siri welsh placenames”

I don’t know Welsh, I’m sorry to say, so I wouldn’t trust my pronunciation and you shouldn’t either. I also wouldn’t trust Siri’s, or any other automated voice’s.

Not long ago, I caught a ride down to Hayle (pronounced Hale by everyone I’ve heard mention it) with a friend whose sat-nav called it HAY-yell. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but you can’t know with place names in England (or Cornwall) unless you ask someone local. And even then, you have to hope they’re not messing with you, because it’s got to be tempting.

I suspect Welsh place names are less unpredictable than English ones, but I’m saying that not because I know anything about Welsh place names but because I’m convinced that nothing matches the English ones for sheer insanity.

“how many brussels sprouts do we eat in the u.k. at christmas”

240,641, 004. But that doesn’t take account of the ones that get sliced into quarters and shoved under the leftover mashed potatoes, And the brussels sprouts monitors are still arguing whether to count the ones that get fed to the dog.

Britain and the U.S.

“british admired americans directness”

Oh, they did, did they? All of them? When was that? In my experience some do and some would just as soon send us home to be direct—or rude, if you prefer—with our fellow Amurricans.

“british hate americans” // “do brits like americans” // “british attitude toward americans” // “do british people like chocolate chip cookies”

Let’s get this out of the way first: I do understand the difference between Americans and chocolate chip cookies. I herded those complaining questions into a single group because I want to explain this once and once only: The Great British Attitude Convention—you know: the one that votes on how the entire population feels about things—bogged down in procedural disagreements this year and hasn’t been able to decide a damn thing. They’re still arguing about the shape of the table.

So Americans? Chocolate chip cookies? Right now, no one knows how the British feel. People are hugging American tourists and then hauling off and slapping them. They’re buying chocolate chip cookies, then throwing them on the floor by the cash register and stamping on them. It’s a tricky business, being on all sides of everything.

“british people think of tornado alley”

I’m not so sure they do. A few, probably, but I don’t think tornado alley’s widely known.

The inevitable wig questions

“does the government still wear those stupid wigs in england”

The government is not a living being. From that it follows from it is that the government doesn’t have a physical head to put a wig on. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Some things we’ve just got to face up to. And the phrase “the head of state”? It’s a figure of speech. The state, like the government, doesn’t have a literal head.

“do english judges feel silly”

Constantly.

Oh, you were asking about wigs. Probably not. They’re used to them.

Gotcha questions

“how to act like aristocracy”

Okay, I admit it: When I gave that title (or something like it; I don’t really remember) to a post, I was thinking, I bet someone googles this. And they do. Not in huge numbers, but in ones and threes. It’s embarrassing. For them, not me. Do you suppose they’re really trying to act like aristocracy, and if so, why?

“how to behave like an aristocratic lady”

Keep your eye on me, kid, then do the opposite.

Things that actually happen in Britain

Cold off the British press: Notes from the U.K. proudly presents the following mostly outdated news stories.

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

The British Museum misplaced a diamond ring worth £750,000. It’s not lost, it’s just—oh, you know how this works. Someone put it in a safe place. It hasn’t been seen since. That happens to me all the time, although not usually with £750,000 diamond rings.

In fact, that’s why I don’t buy £750,000 diamond rings. I know what’ll happen to them.

How do we know this happened? Somebody submitted a Freedom of Information request to—I guess—the major British museums, asking what they’ve misplaced, and then counted up the responses. Some 6,000 items became unaccounted for over the past I’m not sure how long, which makes the report of questionable value but hey, here at Notes we don’t really care. And we aren’t really a we. It’s just me here, typing away.

The 6,00 items include a rare piece of quartz, an old washing machine, a tin of talcum powder, and an important black tie.

How important can a black tie be? I wouldn’t know. I suspect you’d have to have owned one before you can make an estimate. That’s why I never have. I’d put it in a safe place with that damned diamond ring and that’d be the end of them both.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: This is a flower. In case you weren’t sure.

 

 

The arts are flourishing

The winner of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize gets £25,000, but the winner of the Turnip Prize gets a turnip mounted on a nail. It’s awarded to the entrant who creates rubbish art “using the least amount of effort possible.” The contest is now in its eighteenth year and is still being run from a Somerset pub.

All the best contests are run from pubs. Or else they start or end in one.

The 2017 contest had over 100 entries but the organizers said proudly that the standard was “still crap.”

Last year’s winner said the contest showed that  “if you set your sights on the gutter and refuse to work hard your dreams really can come true.”

A past entry included a dark pole titled “Pole Dark.” I don’t think it won, which just goes to show you, although I’m not sure what it goes to show you.

I am forever indebted to my friend Deb for calling this contest to my attention.

Water companies use witchcraft

Britain’s a wet country, but every so often people have to search for water anyway. Historically, it was so they could dig wells, but these days it’s also so water companies can find leaks and all sorts of people can locate pipes before they run a digger into them.

Recently, water companies—not all of them, but most—were caught using dowsers, also called water witches, and there’s a predictable flap about it.

Dowsing’s an ancient way of looking for water (or anything else that’s invisible). Traditionally, dowsers used a forked stick. These days, they use a couple of bent wires or metal rods or clothes hangers or tent pegs or—well, you get the idea. When the dowser walks above the hidden water, the wires move toward each other.

Does it work? I’ve never tried. I’m fresh out of tent pegs or I’d go looking for our water pipes. What’s worse, most of our hangers are plastic. Wire hangers are hard to find around here. It’s probably a religious issue because it’s a mystery to me.

What I can tell you is that science blogger Sally Le Page went public about a water company sending a dowser to her parents’ house to locate pipes. Before you could say “superstitious nonsense,” it was in the news. Experts have weighed in to say that it’s not a technique, it’s witchcraft—not in the sense of it being evil but unscientific and silly.

Before this all disappeared from the news, which it did pretty quickly, I listened to a sober BBC journalist interviewing an expert. The journalist happened to have tried water witching and his experience was that it worked—the tent pegs moved strongly toward each other just as he passed over (if I remember correctly) an underground pipe.

The expert talked about false positives. The journalist talked about the feeling of the rods moving in his hands. The journalist was the more convincing speaker.

The regulator (which has no power in this) urged water companies to consider whether dowsing is cost effective, then stuck its fingers in its ears and turned the other way, humming “There’ll always be an England.” The company Le Page challenged said, “We’ve found some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.”

“Just as effective than the new ones”? If they’d like to hire a copy editor, I’m retired but can be called in for small emergencies. For a fee.

I don’t need dowsing rods to tell you that since the flap’s already died down everyone will have gone back to business as usual.

A woman becomes Black Rod

For the first time in British history, a woman’s been appointed as Black Rod.

As what?

Black Rod, who is not to be confused with a dowsing rod. Black Rod’s a person and plays a ceremonial role in the little playlet put on when the queen (or king, when there happens to be one) speaks at the opening of Parliament. Black Rod is sent from the House of Lords to summon the House of Commons. The Commons slams the door in his—or now her—face until he (now she) knocks three times with his (now her) staff, at which point someone opens the door and the MPs troupe out behind him—or now her—like overfed ducklings.

Enough of that. I’m tired of juggling pronouns.

Black Rod also does other stuff, some of which may be perfectly sensible, and dresses in, um, a distinctive get-up.

It’s heartening to know that in this glorious new age we live in women can have jobs that are just as silly as men’s. This isn’t what I hoped feminism would bring us when I was a young hell-raiser, but as Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”

Berra is also supposed to have said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” which is demonstrated by the first quote appearing on the internet in several forms, so I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room. The first quote was originally said, in some form or other, by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who said at least half the things he said.

Apparently.

You probably already know that the next Doctor Who is also a woman.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if someone’s appointed as Black Rod or simply appointed Black Rod, with no as. Maybe you reword the sentence to avoid the issue. But I’m not getting paid to worry about that stuff anymore.

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

Every day, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs goes through 1,400 disposable cups in its restaurants and cafes, which are run by private companies under contract to the department. So it’s good to know everyone’s taking the department’s mission seriously.

The House of Commons went through 657,000 disposable cups last year, but they did their bit by buying 500 reusable cups and selling four of them in the course of three years, so yeah, nothing’s going to waste there.

Based on a survey of one, incompetence may have a genetic component

Britain has a foreign secretary—Boris Johnson—who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth. Or in the case of a woman imprisoned in Iran, who has both British and Iranian citizenship, for putting his foot very dangerously in other people’s mouths. (I wrote this in mid-December and may not get a chance to update it; she was still in prison at that point; it would be nice to think that by she’ll have been released by the time this appears but I’m not putting any money on it.)

Johnson not only said the woman was in Iran teaching journalism, which helped Iran justify her arrest (both she and her family say she was visiting her parents, and she brought her toddler daughter with her, so that seems credible), Johnson refused to retract the statement for a long time, offering a kind of non-apology instead.

I can’t explain Johnson’s political survival, but a recent article about his father reported that Johnson-the-father ran for Parliament in 2005 with election literature that not only misspelled the area he was running in, it used a slogan I love: “More talk, less action.”

He lost.

Still, it’s refreshing, in a stupid kind of way. If we want truth in political advertising. there it is.

Unlike his son, he knows how to back down. He’s quoted as admitting that when he was a spy (sorry—I’m not sure what office he was spying for or who he was spying on) his “incompetence may have cost people their lives.” Which, again, is kind of refreshing in its openness, although it doesn’t bring anyone back from the grave.

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

Guardian letter writers spilled a fair bit of ink arguing about how to pronounce latte, as in caffe latte, as in an expensive coffee drink.

There are two problems involved here: 1. how to pronounce the word to begin with, and 2. how to communicate the pronunciation in print to an English speaker.

And you thought it was just coffee. Silly you. These things are complicated.

I know that: 1. the pronunciation doesn’t really matter as long as people understand you, and 2. the problem could be solved by going online, de-muting the speakers you (or was that me, or possibly I?) turned off to shut up those annoying ads, and then hoping that whoever you’re listening to got it right, which is far from guaranteed. But isn’t it more fun to do it the hard way?

The first way to tell people how to pronounce something is to use specialists’ marks. Caffe latte comes out as kæfeɪ ˈlɑːteɪ. I’m sure the system’s foolproof, but this fool never did learn how to turn the marks into pronunciation. So let’s try method two, which is to rhyme the word or phrase with something else. That’s the method the letter writers used.

The first said latte rhymed with pate, not par-tay.

Par-tay? Is that when you invite a bunch of people over and offer them food and something to drink? Where I come from, that’s a party. There’s no A involved, and no hyphen.

So do I know how to pronounce par-tay? No. It could be par-TAY of PAR-tay. And given that large parts of Britain treat the R as a very shy sound that disappears in company–well, that adds another complication.

The next day someone wrote in to say that in the north they’ve always rhymed latte and pate, reminding us all that accents here change from region to region, making the whole rhyming thing a complete crapshoot.

The day after that, someone said the emphasis belongs on the first syllable anyway, so it should rhyme with satay, not pate. Great, but I thought satay was pronounced sat-AY, emphasis on the last syllable, making it rhyme with the French pronunciation of pate, which is where we came in.

Is this complicated enough for you yet? It not, let me confuse it further. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I think I’ve heard some British people put the accent on the first syllable of pate and others put it on the second, meaning that if you’re using that as your rhyming word, you’re in trouble.

You see the problem here. English is a slippery language.

Take the word skeletal. You’re not going to rhyme anything with unless you’re an expert, but the standard British pronunciation is skell-EE-tl. The American pronunciation is SKELL-uh-tl. If you find a word that rhymes with either version, the comment section is waiting eagerly.

The third way to communicate pronunciation in print is to do what I did with satay: break the word into syllables, capitalize the one that gets the emphasis, and figure out a phonetic spelling for each syllable. It works, but only up to a point. When I had to do it for a series of kids’ books I was working on, I ran into trouble with a few sounds. Some  of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s, but the one that really sank me was the sound at the end of the word garage–unless, of course, you use one of the British pronunciations, which is GARE-idge. It’s a kind of soft G, but–.

Oh, let’s not get into it. We’ll sink. No spelling was foolproof and there’s a whole generation of kids who grew up mispronouncing the vocabulary words they learned from me.

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

Google Maps finds out why crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a good idea

Okay, this story isn’t limited to Britain, but we all know I cheat: Everton football fans went onto Google Maps and labeled a rival team’s stadium “gobshites.”

What’s a gobshite? Gob’s a mouth. Shite is shit. Put them together and you get a stupid or incompetent person, or so the internet tells me. It also swears that shite in Norwegian is shite and that gobshite in Spanish is pendejo, which according to the Oxford Dictionaries literally means pubic hair.

Don’t you learn interesting things here? I’ve wondered about the literal meaning of pendejo for years. Seriously. I have. Why didn’t I look it up? I did, I just didn’t think of typing in “word origin pendejo” until now.

Are you impressed with my intellectual curiosity? I sure as hell am.

In 2015, Lord Google had to close his crowdsourced mapmaking tool when someone added a robot peeing on an Apple logo to a part of Pakistan. In that same year, British sports fans played other shit-related online jokes. It must be a British thing. Sports fans here are a distinctive breed.

In an unstated year, someone labeled the White House entrance hall Edward’s Snow Den.

Google is “understood to be…looking into” the most recent issue. In the meantime, if you want to sneak Boaty McBoatface onto a map, you might still be able to.

Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts

As the Christmas season sneaks up on us, more and more people turn to Notes from the U.K. for help in understanding the link between brussels sprouts and Christmas. (I’ll get to the pudding in a minute. Be patient.) It started as early as October. Or maybe that was September. Who keeps track?

If you’re not British, you’re thinking, Christmas and brussels sprouts? That makes as much sense as Easter and birthday candles, or Hanukkah and ham.

But brussels sprouts are a traditional part of the British Christmas dinner. I’ve explained all this at length before, with (please, do remember where you are) varying degrees of accuracy and insanity. So instead of repeating myself, let me refer you to that great authority on all things British, me, for everything you need to know on the subject. And more. You’ll find it here and here and yes, even here.

Done? Seat belts fastened? Good, but before we move on I have to tell you that I recently got a link from a website that seems to have believed me when I wrote that the Druids worshipped the Great Brussels Sprout. That’ll learn me, as they said where I grew up. Or it should learn me, although it probably won’t.

For the record, if the Druids really did worship the Great Brussels Sprout, I don’t know about it and neither does anyone else. Very little’s actually known about the Druids, but since I made up that business about the sprouts, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s not true.

I don’t know whether to collapse into a fit of giggles or a fit of shame. I really didn’t think I was in danger of being taken seriously.

You’re never in no danger of being taken seriously. If you don’t believe me, take a long, hard look at American politics.

Obviously relevant photo: This is the universal winter holiday penguin, worshipping the Great Brussels sprout. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, be patient. Winter’ll get to you eventually. Photo by Ida Swearingen. Fairly random cropping by me.

 

But let’s move on.

Every year, starting sometime in the fall, people all over Britain wake from their mental slumber, first in ones and twos, then in tens and twenties, and ask themselves an important question, Why do we eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? And some percentage of them are bothered enough to go online and type the question into their browsers.

Some subset of that group finds its way here, and each member of that subset registers as a tiny ping in my stats—the behind-the-scenes breakdown of semi-useful, completely addictive information that WordPress provides its bloggers. And that, my friends, is how I know what people worry about in this Brexiting nation. The mess that are Britain’s negotiations with the European Union? Nope. The prospect of a collapsing pound? Wrong again. The possibility of devastating economic shrinkage or the growth in immigrantophobia? Not those either.

Okay, how about the underfunding and endless reorganization of the National Health Service? No again.

They worry about brussels sprouts. As anyone would in that sort of situation.

Now, a lot of people will accept something as a traditional part of a meal just because it’s always been presented to them as a traditional part of the meal. That’s particularly true if they like the thing: They don’t ask why, they just eat. Take Christmas pudding. We eat that at Christmas because it’s Christmas pudding, they tell themselves. You can’t eat Christmas pudding all year long, can you?

What about itty-bitty mince pies? We eat those because they taste Christmassy. Don’t bother me with silly questions, just pass me the pies, ’cause I’d like another.

You can tell that’s not a genuine British quote because it doesn’t include a please. Or a thank you. And I’m sure for several other reasons, which you’re more than welcome to list in the Comments.

But sprouts are—well, they’re a kind of specialist’s food. If they were books, they’d be literary fiction instead of mass market. So every year, some number of sprout-hating people drag themselves out of their most-of-the-year-long serenity and ask, “Why do we do this anyway?”

And here I am, ready to answer.

The reason people are confused is that British Christmas tradition, as far as I’ve observed it, doesn’t explain itself (and keep in mind that I’m triply an outsider as an American and a Jew and an atheist, so I don’t get the final word on this). You just do things because that’s how they’re done. Talk about your religious mysteries.

That kind of approach leaves questions in people’s minds.

By way of comparison, take the Passover, where explanations are built into the tradition. The youngest child—it used to be the youngest boy and in some strands of belief still is—asks a series of questions and some designated adult (I forget which one) answers. Over and over, each year. Same damn questions. Same damn answers. The kid never learns. At the most traditional seder (that’s the ritualized Passover dinner) I ever went to, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough for the meal to end, because every twitch of the fork needed an explanation.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because we have all this food but we’re not eating it, we’re reading very long explanations out of a book.

Okay, I’m sure most families handle the seder with grace and joy and the food gets eaten before it’s older than the family members. My experience is absurdly limited. The point is that the holiday’s structured to teach its meanings and symbolism. No one walks away wondering, Yeah, but why matzo? Why salt water? They not only know, they’re tired of hearing about it.

Okay, that’s an assumption. Cup of salt, please. We’ll sprinkle it right here, since we need  salt water anyway.

But back to Christmas. I’m tired of explaining why brussels sprouts are part of the meal, so let’s go for a less predictable question this year: Why is Christmas pudding part of the meal?

Well, in the U.S., it’s not. All we know about the stuff is that Dickens wrote about it–and that’s only the people who read Dickens. As for the rest of the world, I’m betting the Christmas pudding’s a good way to measure how deep British influence goes in a culture. No Christmas pudding, minimal British influence. Let me know if I’m right, oh ye who live in countries that aren’t the U.S. or Britain.

Or if I’m wrong. That’s more fun anyway.

It turns out that Christmas pudding is the same as plum pudding. It also turns out that plum pudding doesn’t necessarily have any plums in it. Plum, in this case, means something-other-than-plums.

Are you with me? Pay attention here, because it’ll be on the test.

The Christmas pudding can be traced back to the 14th century, when it was a soup-like, porridgy thing called frumenty, made with beef or mutton plus raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices.

What’s porridge? (You only ask that if you’re not British.) It’s oats or some other cereal cooked in water or milk until it’s the texture of wallpaper paste. Mmmmmmmmmm. In Norwegian (sorry—Lord Google continues to offer me translations and I can’t help myself, I have to check) it’s called grot.

No comment.

Aw, go on, comment, Ellen. You know you want to: I love oatmeal, but only the stuff you make with thick-cut oats. The British, though, are addicted to fine-cut oats, which make the wallpapery stuff. They’ve even discovered that if they soak the oats overnight it’ll be even gluier. What can I tell you? It’s one of those cultural differences that make our world so interesting.

But back to frumenty: It was a fasting meal.

A what? Doesn’t fasting mean not eating? No. It’s kind of like plum pudding not meaning a pudding with plums. You could eat during a fast, but you couldn’t enjoy yourself, because all the good stuff was off the menu.

At the time we’re talking about, you got to Christmas by way of a month of fasting during Advent, and frumenty was something you ate during that month. It sounds horrible to me, but it’s full of things that would’ve been expensive back then—spices, dried fruit, wine. Not to mention meat (that may have been meat or fat or broth; I’ve read a number of sources and recipes and it all gets a little murky here), which the poor didn’t have even if they weren’t fasting. So I’m guessing this is deprivation eating for the rich.

By way of total transparency, the frumenty recipes I looked at include wheat, milk, sugar, and other stuff that’s not in the various lists of medieval frumenty ingredients. They also leave out the meat or fat, although stock is optional in some. So these would be the modern versions.

Skip forward to the almost-16th century and we find that frumenty’s morphed into a plum pudding, made with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and wine or beer. By 1640, it was a standard Christmas dessert and it tasted good enough for the Puritans to ban it, along with Yule logs, Christmas carols, nativity scenes, iPhones, and fun.

Or that’s one version of the tale. Another goes like this:

“Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible. The first records of plum puddings date to the early 15th century, when ‘plum pottage,’ a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal. Then as now, the ‘plum’ in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit—most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).”

Why does the plum in plum pudding mean things that aren’t plums? Because this is English we’re dealing with. Ask for a fruit scone in Britain and you’ll get a scone with raisins. Why don’t they call it a raisin scone? Because it’s called a fruit scone.

Feel like you’ve just gone in circles? It could be worse. Try asking why Britain’s called Britain. (Sorry, I’m referring you to that renowned expert, myself, again.)

In 1714, with the Puritans safely out of power, King George reestablished the Christmas pudding as an end to the Christmas dinner. He became known as the pudding king, which may or may not be a better than being called Ivan the Terrible.

All sorts of religious symbolism has been woven into various elements of the pudding over the years. Why do you pour brandy over the top, turn off the lights, and light the brandy? Because it symbolizes Jesus’ love and power.

Uh huh. And incidentally because it’s very pretty. And because you get to add a little more brandy to an already very boozy dessert.

I won’t go through all they symbolism. I suspect most of them aren’t passed down anymore—they’re something you have to look up online, or maybe hear from your mother who vaguely remembers, or possibly misremembers, what great-great-aunt Hetty used to say.

But whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—remember to eat all your Christmas pudding or you don’t get any brussels sprouts.

And if you need to know anything about Britain, just ask me. I don’t actually know much, but I can fill page after virtual page telling you that.

Maybe next year we’ll dig out the true history of the mince pie.

British Advent calendars: nothing exceeds like excess

Hey, folks, want to spend a shitload of money celebrating something that was once supposed to be somber and full of self-denial? Well, be of good cheer, then, because we’re still in the middle of Advent—a holiday I barely knew about until I moved to Britain.

I’m not sure how big a thing Advent is for American Christians. I have the impression that it’s more important to Catholics than to Protestants, but when I lived in the U.S. it was never a noisy enough holiday to have made a dent in this Jewish atheist’s awareness—and that’s in spite of growing up in a Catholic neighborhood and having Catholic godkids. I knew it existed and I knew it involved calendars, and there my knowledge ended. I remember seeing an Advent calendar at a friend’s house. It had a little window to open, and behind that a picture. What kid could resist? But the pictures turned out to be religious and I lost interest.

600% relevant if slightly out of focus, photo: These are the Advent shih-tzus. They bring calendars to all the good adults. Unfortunately, neither of them can read, so people are likely end up with outdated calendars. No system’s perfect and we’ll just have to live with it.

Assuming I’m right about Advent being more important for Catholics than for (most) Protestants, the British focus on Advent is a reminder that the Anglican Church may be Protestant but it’s very much descended from Catholicism.

The British Advent season seems to be mostly–maybe entirely–about calendars. I can’t seem to stop reading about them, because they’re not just sitting around on a store shelf, waiting for someone to buy them for their kids. They’re popping steroids and growing muscles where no one ever grew muscles before. On their hair. On their teeth. They’re—change the metaphor for me, someone, please—the mega-zombie apocalypse of all Advent calendars.

The newspapers review them almost like movies. And you could go to a lot of movies for the cost of these beasties. The ones for kids might have a reasonable price tag and a piece of chocolate behind each window, but they’re making them for adults now. And not just for adults, for the over-indulged adults of the 1%.

And also for the—I’m making up the numbers here, so don’t quibble—adults for the 5.6% just below them. And for a few for the rest of us who want a few minutes of thinking we can have the lives we see on TV.

Should we start near the top end? I found one for £300. And what do you get for that? Some (I hate to admit it) very nice packaging and a bunch of beauty products.

I just love that phrase, beauty product. You put this stuff on your face and become so beautiful no one will know who you are anymore. That nose you always thought was too long, or too wide, or too whatever? It disappears. Your wrinkles? They have such a nice skim of plaster that you look like a freshly painted wall.

Beauty products are a big thing with these calendars, and one reviewer blames that on the blogosphere, and specifically on beauty bloggers. The internet’s full of them, and of beauty-blog readers, so there’s a built-in way to promote them. In case anyone needs a reminder of how commercial blogging can be—.

In case it isn’t already clear, I’m not getting paid to promote beauty product calendars. That may be linked to the fact that I’m not promoting them. Also that I don’t wear makeup. I already have a face, although you can’t tell that from the photo I use. The face was installed well before I was born and it’ll have to do.

It’s easy to forget how crazy our lust for stuff is (see how neatly I just included you in this) until we’re yanked outside our familiar territory and that unfamiliarity lets us look around and notice how strange things are. So the insanity of Christmas spending? It’s been going on so long it’s hard to see. But a £300 Advent calendar? The world’s gone insane.

You can also spend £90 with an outfit called Cowshed and get a “luxurious Advent calendar packed with a wide range of natural products. Each door opens up to reveal another beauty treat to ensure that you’re well pampered in that hectic Christmas build-up.”

All this from a cowshed? Think Marie Antoinette. She’s out there playing at being a shepherd. Or cowherd. Or, well, she didn’t have to know her cows from her sheep anyway, did she? At a mere £90, this calendar is for commoners—admittedly, only for commoners with £90 to spare, but still, when we start with £300 it begins to look cheap. Still, it lets us play at being Marie Antoinette as we pamper ourselves during that hectic Christmas build-up. We can pretend the servants will put up the decorations.

Or maybe I have Marie Antoinette mixed up with Queen Victoria, but don’t’ worry about it, because we’re moving on.

If you’re beautiful enough already, or set on letting the people you know continue to recognize you, you can get calendars with chocolate (£65 for 24 mini-houses holding a chocolate each), or tools (£44, and the tools are small or they wouldn’t fit in a calendar), or socks (£79) or alcohol (£149.95 for scotch; £124.95 for gin; or, stop the press, I just found one with whiskey for a round £10,000, because once you pass the thousand-pound mark there’s no point in tacking on the change), or stationery (£90 for paperclips, sticky notes, tape, pens, and a—gack—gratitude journal). Or selfie accessories (a steal at £19.99 and who knows when you’ll need a fake mustache for your next selfie).

I did my best to find out if Advent’s gone this wild in the U.S., but Google insists on telling me about Britain and only Britain. Even when I shifted to Google U.S.A., the prices came up in pounds. Lord Google knows what I want to know, or at least what I need to know, or at least where I am and therefore where he can help sell me, and he’s not about to tell me anything else.

But it may also be because luxury Advent calendars aren’t a thing in the U.S. I look forward to finding out once you commenters get loose on this.

The top marks for complete obscenity goes to the 2010 Porsche million U.S. dollar calendar, which included a speedboat, a kitchen, a watch, cufflinks, “fine writing tools” (presumably pens and pencils, but maybe quills, because hey, what do I know about this stuff?), and a pair of running shoes. I don’t know how they packaged it all, but it stood 1.75 meters tall (that’s 5.74 feet, just in case you’re clearing space in your living room). They only made five and even though the price was in dollars they were sold through Harrods in London.

The bakery chain Greggs made a much more down-to-earth calendar with coupons for sausage rolls, lattes, mince pies, and other fairly ordinary stuff. I only mention it because they substituted the sausage roll (with a bite out of it) for the baby Jesus in a nativity scene and it hit the press.

The sausage roll looks, in the context of the Wise Men figures, very big. Maybe that’s why someone took a bite.

All hell broke loose, with expressions of outrage from conservative Christian organizations and accusations that other religions never get insulted this way. Which, in a sense, is true: They get insulted in other, and as far as I can see more damaging, ways. I’m guessing the people hitting the roof haven’t tried flying while in possession of a Muslim name lately.

Anyway, have a somber season of fasting and self-denial, folks. And don’t buy any Porsches until you check with me.

Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

The joys of pre-metric measurements

Anyone who thinks I’m kidding around when I talk about the insanity of pre-metric weights and measures needs to read April Munday’s post on the medieval versions of the slippery little beasts.

I offer eternal gratitude to anyone who can explain why there aren’t a hundred of something–I don’t much care what–in a hundredweight. (I should warn you that eternity doesn’t last as long as it used to. It’s one of those inconsistent measurement things.)