A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

British cops and courts are–no surprise here–having a hard time keeping up with urban slang, which changes fast enough to baffle the people it’s meant to baffle. And cops and courts are, predictably, high on the list of baffle-targets.

So who do they turn to? A linguist who’s compiled a dictionary of what academics call MLE, or multi-ethnic London English, which has jumped the M-25 (that’s a highway that encircles London) and spread to the rest of the country.

The linguist, Tony Thorne, describes himself as an elderly white guy–by age and profession, an outsider–and despite saying that there are gaps in his knowledge he’s on a list of translators hired by the courts. The other people on the list translate from and to languages like, say, Polish or Hindi. He translates from MLE, and he’s done it for defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: a camellia.

Thorne said, “I am trying to help by defending kids who are wrongly accused by their language and go after the people who have committed violent crimes.”

What he does is translate lyrics, messages, and that sort of thing. What he doesn’t do is sit between two people telling each one what the other one said.

MLE mixes (and here I’m quoting not Thorne but the article where I learned about him) “white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish.”

MLE, Thorne said, “has a social and cultural power and is evolving in a way most slangs aren’t. It points up the real diversity of Britain and it is not ghettoised ethnicity. The theorists call it super-diversity.”

To translate that (I can, if highly motivated, which I’m usually not, translate from academese), it’s alive and changing and it’s used by people from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Like many–maybe all–slangs, the purpose of MLE is to keep the authorities out while the insiders communicate with each other. Changing quickly keeps the boundaries between the two groups relatively solid.

That follows a rich tradition. Cockney rhyming slang developed an inspired system of keeping the boundaries solid. It rhymes a word–say, feet–with a phrase: platters of meat. Then (most of the time) it drops the rhyming half of the phrase, leaving just platters. If you don’t know what it means, you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says it was developed by street traders, beggars, and petty criminals in the first half of the nineteenth century. The website Cockney Rhyming Slang sticks with the more respectable people on the list, mentioning the street traders and leaving everyone else out. Take your pick.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang have been swept into the more general language and are still in use, so that a neighbor greeted me one winter morning by saying, “It’s parky,” which comes from parky in the mould–cold.

Predictably (and probably satisfyingly) enough, I said, “It’s what?”

Another slang, Polari, was used from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It was made up of Italian, Occitan, French, Romany, Yiddish, rhyming slang, backslang (where you pronounce words as if they were spelled backwards), and possibly a few other bits and pieces.

It started in pubs near the London docks and was picked up by sailors in the merchant fleet. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was used primarily in gay pubs, on merchant ships, and in the theater, and if you think that’s an odd mix of people and places, you don’t know your gay history. It was also used by lesbians, circus people, and prostitutes. And–well, different sources will add different groups to the list, but you get the drift.  Marginalized people. People who had reasons to want to talk to each other openly and secretly, both at the same time.

Polari began to die out after homosexuality was partially (and later fully) decriminalized, which is also when gay liberation began championing openness. It wasn’t needed anymore.

An older slang, thieves’ cant, may date back to the 1530s and was used by criminals. Or criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. Or–well, somebody. Outsiders forming an in-group that keeps respectable people out. It all gets a little hazy, though, because the only record we have comes from the kind of respectable people who wrote stuff down and whose writings got preserved. In other words, what we know about  it is second hand and comes from writers who looked down on cant speakers. And were fascinated by them. And may or may not have known what they were talking about.

Enough respectable people were fascinated that canting dictionaries were popular. The language made its way into literature and plays. But a WikiWhatsia entry raises the question of how well the written version of the language matched the language used on the street.

“A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.”

It’s a lost bit of history that we can’t reconstruct, but we can know, at least, that it was there. It’s a bit like archeology. You find these bits and pieces. You can make educated guesses, but the world that made them is gone. You can’t be sure you’re right.

What really happens in Britain. And elsewhere

Two guys working at a bike shop in Bury St. Edmunds got bored back in September of 2017 and decided to cremate a mouse. (“As you do,” as people in Britain say when someone’s done something strikingly odd.)

They ended up doing £1.6 million worth of damage. It took twelve fire crews–sixty firefighters–seven hours to put out the fire.

As of late June, they were still out on bail. None of the articles I read said what happened to the mouse. We can only hope its ashes were handled with appropriate respect.

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Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what we’re looking at here. Possibly honesty. That’s the name of a plant, not a comment about me admitting that I’m not sure.

Since Notes is about Britain, let’s talk about something that has nothing to do with it: a translation of Game of Thrones into Spanish.

Before the series ended, the upcoming plot twists in Game of Thrones were more tightly protected than the deliberations of Britain’s cabinet–which is setting the bar about as close to the floor as possible–so translators were given something like twenty seconds to translate an hour’s episode. The actors who spoke the translation got a further twenty seconds and then had to swear that they’d forgotten every line they spoke.

As a result, in a not-so-recent but crucial scene, when a character called out, “She can’t see us” (he was talking about a dragon, but you don’t really need to know that) the harried translator supplied the actor with a set of sounds that don’t form a word in Spanish: sicansíos, which is pronounced, very roughly, see-can-SEE-oss. The reason that’s a rough approximation is that any attempt at phonetic spelling in English is doomed.

The actor didn’t have time to say either “what??” or “this doesn’t make sense.” He just voiced the sounds and moved on. The hounds of hell and the twenty-second time limit were nipping at his heels. What else was he supposed to do?

Now, one of the nice things about Spanish is that you can look at a set of syllables that make no sense and at least know how to pronounce it. In English, the whole thing would come to a screaming halt while the actor said, “Look, I’m not arguing about whether this mess makes sense, but will somebody at least tell me how to say it?”

The papers (maybe that should be singular; I haven’t read them all) claim sicansíos might just replace no nos puede ver.

For about twenty seconds.

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And since we’re on the topic of things that have nothing to do with Britain, a survey in the U.S. asked some three thousand people if Arabic numerals should be taught in the schools. Roughly two-thirds said no.

Why? The survey did’t ask, but I have to assume it’s because they’re Arabic. And, you know, Islamic. And likely to turn our children terroristical.

So what are Arabic numerals? They’re the standard mathematical symbols, starting with 0 and going up to 9, that infiltrated our schools centuries ago and are no doubt responsible for the sorry state of the world today. They combine in infinite patterns and they terrorized me during my school years, right up to the time I was old enough to drop math.

I still wake up screaming, although at least one of my math teachers was (as far as I could tell) a very nice person. But even I will admit that Arabic numerals are a lot easier to work with than Roman numerals. Ever try adding MCLII to XIIL? If Roman numerals are the alternative, yes, Arabic numerals should be taught.

Arabic numerals were actually developed by Indian mathematicians but they spread to Europe from the Arab world, picking up their name along the way.

Another survey, in 2015, asked people if they supported bombing Agrabah, the imaginary city where the Disney film Aladdin was set. I don’t have an overall number, but 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats thought it would be a good idea. I know that’s a minority, but my friends, I despair.

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The shop in our village closed last year, as shops have in lots of British villages, in large part because people can order their groceries online and have them–or something vaguely like them–delivered to their door. So what’s it like to order groceries online?

Funny you should ask, because a recent newspaper article surveyed some of the more unlikely substitutions that stores had made when they didn’t have what the customer ordered. Top marks go to Tesco, which didn’t have a birthday candle shaped like a five and sent two twos and a one instead. They didn’t include any plus signs, so that would make the kid well over a hundred.

Asda was out of lemon juice and sent a lemon cake.

An unnamed supermarket sent Petit Filous yogurt instead of petit pois–small green peas–and spring onions instead of spring flowers.

Tesco sent printer paper instead of paper napkins.

An Australian Woolworths sent popcorn instead of potatoes.

All of which combines to make one reason I’ve never ordered groceries online. Of course, it helps that I can still drive and have to time to wander dazedly through the aisles myself, wondering where they moved the flour the last time they re-disorganized the place and how many candles it takes to add up to five if I’m working in Roman numerals instead of Arabic ones. And whether spring onions make an appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

The people who fill the orders apparently can override the substitutions the computer suggests, but if they’ve gone comatose with either boredom or overwork and don’t notice that anything odd has happened, they (very understandably) won’t.

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When did rabbits first come to Britain? It’s been assumed that the Normans brought them, but one lone bone found in a Roman palace has destroyed that belief. They were here when the Romans were and they dressed in sandals and itty bitty little suits of leather armor.

They tried the feathery helmets but the style just didn’t work for them, what with their long ears and all, although I have it from a reliable source that they liked the look a lot and envied the humans who wore them.

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Who owns England? Half of the land is owned by 1% of the population. Homeowners (nationally, that’s 62.5 % of the population) all rolled in together own 5%.

Now we come to the odd bit: how you find the proportion of homeowners–you know, that 62.5% that looks so convincing in the last paragraph. Based of Lord Google’s predictive text, you find it by asking for the proportion of homeowners who own their own home.

I’ll give that a minute to land in your brain and detonate.

I’d have thought 100% of homeowners owned their homes, but I’m a word person. I never have been good at math. It’s 62.5% and the other, um, is it 37.5% of homeowners? I can’t explain what they own, if it’s not their homes, that puts them in the homeowners category. But, um, yeah, I’m sure the number’s accurate, I just can’t be sure what it’s a number for. And, what the hell, if it isn’t accurate, just substitute some other number. If you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ‘em all.

What other rash assumptions did I make about land ownership? I assumed the aristocracy and landed gentry had long since doddered off into richly deserved irrelevance. Silly me. They own at least 30% of the land–possibly more, since 17% of the land is unregistered, meaning it’s probably (information on land ownership is fiendishly hard to find) inherited and has never been bought or sold. The owners are, many of them, the descendants of the Norman barons, still holding what their ancestors seized in 1066. It’s impressive, in a screwed up sort of way.

Another 18% is owned by corporations, 17% by “oligarchs and City bankers,” 8.5% by the public sector. Less than 2% each is owned by conservation charities, the royal family, and the Church of England.

If that adds up to more or less than 100%, recalculate it in Roman numerals and it’ll work out perfectly.

Farmers don’t seem to have been broken out into a separate category. I don’t know why or what that means. I do know that farming itself breaks down into many categories and may be harder to define that it sounds like it would be. If you keep pet llamas or rescue donkeys–or, I assume, horses–your land’s considered agricultural.

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A British judge asked to be excused from jury duty on the grounds that he was scheduled to preside over the trial he was being called for as a juror. So he wrote the central summoning bureau, explaining his predicament.

They refused his appeal and told him to apply to the resident judge.

“But I told them,” he said, “ ‘I am the resident judge.’ ”

They didn’t see a problem with that.

He finally phoned them and they let him off with a slap on the wrist.

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Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was paid more than $160,000 for two speeches in March. For one of them, that came to £40,000 an hour. As the old song says, it’s nice work if you can get it.

He had to apologize to the Commons for breaching its rules by being late in declaring £52,000 of outside income in addition to not declaring an apparent 20% interest in a property in Somerset.

He’s maneuvering to be the next prime minister now that Theresa May has finished stabbing herself in the back. For the most part (I haven’t read the morning headlines yet) this involves keeping his mouth shut so he doesn’t say anything exceedingly silly while the other candidates admit to drug use and lack of drug use and make promises to cut taxes on the rich–or occasionally not to. One did his best to cozy up to Larry the Cat, 10 Downing Street’s resident cat, who’s outlasted more than one incumbant. 

Larry walked away. 

Boris hasn’t yet promised to bomb Agrabah, but I’m waiting.

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Can you stand one more story about British politics? The person who was in charge of Grenfell Tower when it burned was invited to talk to a housing conference.

What’s Grenfell Tower? An apartment building that has become shorthand for, among other things, the arrogance of people whose bureaucratic decisions affect other people’s lives and deaths. The building went up in flames when a faulty refrigerator set the cladding–which is British for siding–on fire, spreading the fire unbelievably quickly to the entire high rise (or tower block if we’re speaking British).

Residents had been pointing out safety violations in the building for years and were ignored, because what did they know? Besides, it costs money to fix things. Seventy-two people died in the fire.

What was he asked to speak about? Safety.

When some of the survivors raised hell, he withdrew.

Some days it’s hard to be any more unlikely than reality.

Lions and bears and British politicians

Mark Harper is coming dead last in the race to lead Britain’s Conservative Party if the bookies are to be believed. They don’t conduct a poll, just take bets, but it’s what we’ve got by way of a measurement. So to lift his chances, he held a press conference, and somehow or other his campaign released his speech in advance. It began, “Now this isn’t going to be that scripted.”

So that went well.

Maybe what happened next was an attempt to recover and maybe it wasn’t, but either way he invited journalists to ask any question they wanted, promising he’d answer it. It may have really been an unscripted moment.

My best guess is that he hoped they’d ask about his drug use so he could say he’d never touched the stuff. Why? Because his fellow leadership candidate Michael Gove had recently been outed as having used cocaine before enforcing assorted anti-drug regimes on other people, including prison inmates and teachers. And once Gove was outed, all the other leadership candidates felt the need to out themselves. If you missed all that, you can catch up with it here and here.

Unfortunately, Harper had already outed himself as never having done any drugs, so the question was boring.

Never bore a group of journalists.

I can’t quite reassemble the order of what happened next from the articles I’ve read and it doesn’t really matter, although it would help me write a coherent sentence or two. Let’s just say it involved journalists, electronic messages, and an attempt to come up with the most absurd possible question. One nominee was, “How many gallons of sewage will the Thames Tideway tunnel be able to handle every nine days?” Others were who would win in a fight between an ostrich and and emu and what the value of pi is to the nearest seven decimal places. 

My favorite is, “Would he rather fight 1,000 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?”

Eventually, someone asked out loud who would win if a lion fought a bear.

He did answer, as promised. I don’t remember which he picked. I doubt anyone much cares.

And that, my friends, is British politics in a nutshell. With the emphasis on nut.

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I know I’ve broken my pattern of posting weekly, but (talk about drugs) I just can’t leave some of this stuff alone. And you need to know about it. You know you do.

Drugs & British politicians, part 2

I missed what you’d have to call the punchline to the story about Michael Gove’s drug use: It’s not that the candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and with it the prime ministership) used cocaine even while scolding London liberals for wanting to legalize drugs, it’s that as education secretary he enforced a policy that put lifetime teaching bans on teachers who were caught with drugs. And defended the policy even after admitting that he’d put the stuff up his own nose.

It’s also that as justice secretary he was in charge of the prison system where people convicted of the same crime he committed were serving their sentences.

What does he have to say about it? “All politicians have lives before politics. Certainly when I was working as a journalist I didn’t imagine I would go into politics or public service. I didn’t act with an eye to that.”

In keeping with that, we’re amending the laws: Drug use will only be illegal for people who plan on becoming politicians.

So far, the news–if it is news–that Boris Johnson also used drugs doesn’t seem to be damaging his campaign that way Gove’s admission is hurting his. Ditto the assorted other candidates.

I’ll now leave the Gove drug story alone. Unless, of course, it gets even more absurd and I just have to update you.

Drugs and British politicians: a bonus post

As I write this, half the Conservative Party is in the running to be the next party leader and, in a kind of two-for-one offer that’s built into British politics, since the Conservatives are the ruling party, the next prime minister. For at least a brief time, since the Conservatives have a fragile hold on power. They don’t have a majority, just more MPs than anyone else.

But that’s not why I’m tossing a bonus post onto the blog on a Monday morning. It’s because one of the candidates, Michael Gove, admitted this weekend  that he took cocaine when he was what the papers are describing as a young journalist.

Gove is the secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, and he was, before this, generally considered to be polling just behind Boris Johnson, the party members’ goofball favorite. In the British system, the ruling party gets to pick its own leader, and if it’s in power the prime minister, according to its own rules, so the only people whose opinions count in this poll are the Conservative Party’s members.

The Conservatives aren’t a party that attract a mass membership, even when they can attract a big vote, so this is a small slice of the country picking the next prime minister.

If you’ve seen photos of the competitors, Gove is the one who looks like someone drew a face on a balloon, then added a tie. I keep wanting to say a bow tie, but in the photos I’ve found he’s not actually wearing a bow tie. He just happens to look like the kind of balloon who would.

But never mind his looks. I’m not above making fun of them–it’s unfair and I won’t defend it too much, even if I’ll do it anyway. But they’re not why I’m writing about him. It’s because of the cocaine. He made his announcement just ahead of the publication of a book that would have broken the story anyway. If he was trying to take control of the story, it hasn’t worked.

Back in 1999, he wrote an article for the Times criticizing what he called “London’s liberal consensus” on drug use–a consensus that he argued wanted to loosen drug laws.

In a TV interview since the story broke, he said that didn’t make him a hypocrite.

“The point that I made in the article is that if any of us lapse sometimes from standards that we uphold, that is human.

“The thing to do is not necessarily then to say that the standards should be lowered. It should be to reflect on the lapse and to seek to do better in the future.”

By the evening after the interview, the Times was reporting claims that just hours after he wrote the article Gove hosted a party at which cocaine was taken. Please note the vagueness of that “was taken.” I’m not sure who took it, so we’ll just let the stuff blow around a bit and not ask who inhaled and who didn’t.

Anyway, it’s all okay as long as the standards aren’t lowered.

Interviewers have been asking Gove if, as prime minister, he’d be allowed into the U.S., since the visa application asks about drug use. It’s all been just a tad embarrassing.

All this led to other leadership contestants confessing their drug use and non-use. I’ll skip the non-use and stick with the interesting stuff.

In 2005, Boris Johnson said he thought he was once given cocaine but he sneezed so none of it got up his nose. Then in 2007, he said he tried cocaine and cannabis at university (translation for Americans: that means college) but that it had no effect on him. Which presumably makes him still a virgin. It all depends on what your definition of is is. (Possibly unnecessary translation for non-Americans: That’s a Bill Clinton reference when he was trying to argue that sex with a White House intern wasn’t actually sex because of where the relevant body parts weren’t.) 

Jeremy Hunt said he thought he had a cannabis lassi when he was backpacking in India. After which he thought that everything was very beautiful and that the lassi was the most delicious thing he’d ever poured down his throat. And after that he thought it didn’t affect him even a tiny bit.

Dominic Raab used cannabis as a student but “not very often” and “it was a mistake.” Besides which, “It was a long time ago.” So that doesn’t count either.

Rory Stewart smoked opium at a wedding in Afghanistan. He added that the family that invited him was very poor, so there may have been very little opium in the pipe. Which means they were smoking air. It’s hard to keep air lit, but it puts itself in the pipe without human help, it’s free, and it’s legal everywhere.

Someone who isn’t Matt Hancock said Matt Hancock “tried cannabis a few times as a student.” We’re still waiting to hear why that wasn’t really drug use.

Esther McVey said she had “ never taken any class A drugs, but have I tried some pot? Yes I have. When I was much younger.” That has the virtue of not disowning the experience, but I don’t hear her–or any of the other candidates–pushing for changes to the drug laws or calling for anyone who’s been convicted of the same offense they weren’t charged with to be pardoned.

Possession of marijuana carries a sentence of up to five years and an unlimited fine, or both. Possession of Class A drugs, including cocaine, carries a sentence of up to seven years and an unlimited fine, or both.

Please note, those five to seven years are in prison, not in the House of Commons.

Have you noticed that if you have money and connections, you try drugs and that if you don’t, you use them?

Stay tuned. The race to be leader of the Conservative Party can only get better.

How King John (and others) signed a document

In 2015, the Royal Mint released a two-pound coin commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It showed King John on a throne, holding a scroll, presumably the Magna Carta but possibly his wife’s birthday card, in one hand and a quill in the other, making a see-what-I’ve-got gesture. It looks like he’s just used the quill to sign the scroll or is just about to.

On either side of him are men, one looking warlike, the other (for lack of a better suggestion) scribelike. Or at least armorless. They have nothing to do with the discussion, but I thought I’d mention them since the artist thought they were worth including.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near Tintagel.

The coin kicked off a small storm among the limited group of people who care about these things. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with a quill, they said. He didn’t sign it at all. What he did was put his seal to it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Royal Mint said (in not so many words), but the picture wasn’t meant to give a “literal account of what actually occurred.”

So, count that as a success, then, because it’s not a literal account. No geese were harmed in the signing of the Magna Carta. It was signed with John’s Great Seal.

Why add the quill then? Because no modern person slotting the coin into a machine to pay for overpriced hospital parking would recognize a seal, but we all know that a quill’s an era-appropriate version of the pen. Plus the seal would be too small to show in the picture anyway. John’s Great Seal wasn’t all that great, no matter what he said when he chatted up women (or men–I wouldn’t know) in the era-appropriate equivalent of the bar.

Not that the modern person slotting the coin into etc. looks at the picture. She or he is too busy looking at the amount of money that privatized hospital parking costs these days. Still, artists like to think their work gets noticed. Why else do people post things on the internet? We suffer from the delusion that someone will notice. And care.

But back to our point: quill, not seal.

As it turns out, the Great Seal wasn’t even affixed by John’s own dainty hands. He had officials who did that for him and they wouldn’t have done it at the time the Magna Carta was agreed. When John and his barons met, they’d have made a verbal agreement, and and it would have been written down later and authenticated by pressing John’s seal into wax. The sealing wouldn’t have been any sort of occasion. 

The pressing of a seal into wax, in case it isn’t obvious, is the origin of the phrase sealing wax. And just for the record, there’s no such thing as ceiling wax, even though floor wax is real.  

How did anyone get an accurate record of the agreement John and the barons came to? Good question. Probably from a scribe or two making notes, but that’s a guess. In the case of the Magna C., it didn’t matter if they got the details right because neither side meant to abide by it. In other cases, though, I can imagine all sorts of disasters getting written into key documents.

That probably says more about my notes than it does about medieval scribes.

But let’s talk about seals and signing. We have nothing better to do with ourselves and it will keep us from hanging out on the street corner.

The first Great Seal in England comes from the reign of Edward the Confessor, the (sort of) last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who died in 1066. He’s the guy whose death set off a scramble for the throne that ended in William the Conqueror seizing and holding it. The seal carried Edward’s picture and was intended to show that he stood behind whatever document it was pressed into.

When Billy the Conqueror became king, he had his own seal made, with his own picture on it. And so on, with a few exceptions, down through the line of kings.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word signing was first used–or first recorded, anyway–by John’s son Henry III: “sened wiþ vre seel,” which translates to “signed with our seal.”

Not that you needed a translation–you can’t get much clearer than sened wiþ vre seel–but someone out there might be a bit dense.

By the twelfth century, documents were being not just stamped with wax and a seal but closed with them. If you wanted to read them, you had to either break the seal or be sly enough to lift it and put if back down without damaging it.

As the role of government grew, monarchs adopted a Private Seal (which they capitalized because it was Important) for their own use, leaving the Great Seal in the hands of the government, so it could stamp monarchical authority onto papers without monarchical hands (or quite possibly thoughts) ever being involved. 

If a document’s important enough, it still gets a seal. In the U.K., it get the Great Seal of the Realm, which is not to be confused with a very large creature the British throw fish to. It’s a stamp to press into wax.

That may sound hopelessly quaint and British, but other countries have their own seals, including the U.S. That doesn’t make the process any less quaint, but it’s multiculturally quaint. In the U.S., at least, certain papers have to be notarized–certified by a person who will go through the motions of ensuring that the person signing them is actually that person–and the notary will use a seal, either a rubber stamp or a gizmo that leaves a much more impressive imprint on the paper. Britain also has notaries, but they have a different role and you don’t need to know about it.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to that quote about signing with a seal. It tells us that signing didn’t yet mean scrawling ink across an era-appropriate version of paper. The verb to sign comes from Latin by way of Old French by way of Oh Never Mind, and it meant to mark. Or any one of several related acts, including to mark with a sign. The idea that a signature is a person’s name written by her or his own self came later, in the sixteenth century. Before that, what we’d call a signature was called a sign-manual. In other words, the seal was what you’d expect. A signature would do, but it was a different act–related, but not the expected one.

Signatures were common in the Jewish community as early as the second century C.E. and among Muslims in 622. In Europe, they began to be used in the sixth century but became common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when increased literacy meant that written agreements became more common and developing an intricate, illegible signature became a sign of–well, something. A good education. Style. Couth.

The tradition of an illiterate person signing a document with an X may have come from the ninth and tenth century scribes who validated documents with the sign of the cross.

In the seventeenth century, the Statute of Frauds required contracts to be written, dated, and signed–with signatures. And that pretty well sealed it: Signatures were on their way to becoming primary.

Lord Buckethead and British Politics

Lord Buckethead has been in the news lately.

Who, you might rationally ask, is Lord Buckethead? Let’s do a quick news quiz. He is:

  1. A candidate in U.K. elections.
  2. A character in a science fiction movie.
  3. Both of the above.

Answer # 3 is correct.

The only marginally useful thing I can tell you about the movie that created the Lord B. character is that it’s called Gremloids and that Lord B. is an intergalactic space lord. I’ve seen him described as a cut-price Darth Vader. I trust someone will jump in and save me from my ignorance. In the meantime, let me tell you about the candidate.

Lord Buckethead flashed onto the political scene in 2017, when he ran against Prime Minister Theresa May. In the British system, no one runs or votes directly the prime ministership, so he was running against her for a seat in Parliament. May claimed to be offering strong, stable leadership. He offered “strong, not entirely stable, leadership.”

Irrelevant photo: A rhododendron. The season’s over. Really, I need to get out there and take some new pictures.

He made his appearances in costume. (I could probably argue that she did as well.) You owe it to yourself to go back to the first mention of his name and follow the link so you can see him standing demurely alongside the other candidates, waiting for the vote totals to be announced.

I’ll make this easy: Here’s the link again.

He won 249 votes and the photo of him and his fellow candidates went viral.

At some point, the person under the Lord B. costume, Jon Harvey, got into a wrangle over control of the Lord B. character with Todd Durham, the filmmaker behind Gremloids. It ended up with Harvey surrendering the key to Lord B.’s Twitter account to  Durham.

Then Lord B. went quiet for a while.

Recently, though, he started tweeting again, and appearing at rallies backing a second Brexit referendum. He did some fundraising so he could run in the E.U. elections but dropped his bid when he realized he might take votes from anti-Brexit candidates he actually supported.

This is a new Lord Buckethead, though, not the old one. Since we’re talking about someone with a black buckety thing on his head, the difference isn’t easy to spot. The new Lord B. seems be linked to Durham, because it was Durham who said the money Lord B. crowdfunded for his E.U. election campaign had been returned when he abandoned his run.

Or maybe it is Durham, except that, according to the bios I’ve found, he’s American. Even in costume and under the name Lord Buckethead, he’s not–at least at first glance–eligible to run in European elections. And I’m going to assume that anyone registering to run as Lord Buckethead will be asked a few questions beyond the standard have you filled out this form and where’s your money?

Durham said he welcomed applications from people who want to stand as Lord B. in future British elections. He didn’t say how many, so in our next elections, whenever they turn out to happen, we may find multiple Lord B.’s running for multiple seats. Maybe we’ll end up with a parliament made up entirely of people in Buckethead costumes who all hold their seats under the same name. 

And you thought we had chaos now.

Anyway, it could have been an E.U. citizen inside the costume in this most recent almost-run. It also might not have been. We can’t tell. 

What do British electoral regulations say about people running under names that aren’t their own?

“If you commonly use a different name from your actual name, you can ask for your commonly used name(s) to be used instead of your actual name. “

The name does–at least in theory–have to be a commonly used name that you commonly use.  And it can’t be obscene or offensive. So if you commonly call yourself Lord Buckethead, you’re okay. If you don’t, you’re on shaky ground, although you can fix it all by convincing your mother to call you Lord Buckethead for a week or two.

Can I listen into that conversation? Please?

As far as I know, you don’t have to wear the costume all day or sew yourself Lord Buckethead pajamas.

No one has thought to make a rule governing multiple people running under the same commonly used name that just happens to belong to a fictional being.

Yet.

The earliest Lord Buckethead campaigns were personed by Mike Lee, who ran him (or maybe that should be plain old “who ran”; grammar doesn’t know what to do with this) against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 (131 votes) and against John Major in 1992 (107 votes).

Lord B.’s manifesto (that seems to be the second Lord B., not, I think, the first or the third, although really, your guess is as good as mine) includes the following position on nuclear weapons: “A firm public commitment to build the £100bn renewal of the Trident weapons system, followed by an equally firm private commitment not to build it. They’re secret submarines, no one will ever know. It’s a win win.”

The current Lord B. tweets as @LordBuckethead.

And Jon Harvey–the second Lord B.? He’s pointing out that crowdfunding can allow candidates to be funded and controlled from abroad. The most recent Lord B. campaign, he said, was being run by an American from Beverly Hills.

When the second (I think) Lord B. was interviewed on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the interviewer asked,  “Are you like Dr. Who, do you regenerate for each election?”

“I am Buckethead,” he said. ” We are Buckethead. We are Legion. Does that answer your question?”

Which is an impressively accurate prediction, since he made it before he had any idea how legion he was about to become.

Welcome to the insanity of British politics. Sadly, most of it this much fun. Or this sensible.

*

I owe thanks to someone for suggesting that I write about Lord Buckethead, but I’ve lost track of who it is. When I looked him up at the time, I couldn’t make the story come together. It took the latest uproar for it to cohere into what you just read. By now, though, I’ve lost the note I left myself. Whoever you are, thanks and please let me know who you are. I’ll post a link if you blog.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part fifteenish

How can I tell what the world wants to know about Britain? It sends me questions on search engines. The method is roughly as reliable as reading tea leaves, but it’s what we’ve got. They’re reproduced below in all their oddity.

how do brits interpert tourist

Is “badly” a good enough answer? The British are famous (at least among themselves) for not learning other people’s languages. So interpreting for tourists? Don’t visit the country on the assumption that someone’s going to step in and do this for you–at least not unless you know how to find a community of people who share your language.

Of course, if you don’t read English, you’re not likely to be reading this.

Or is the question about how the British understand tourists? If so, the answer is simple: How is anyone supposed to tell you what an entire country thinks?

This raises the question I keep circling back to when I dredge the search engine pond, which is why so many people assume that a whole–excuse me–fuckin’ culture feels or thinks the same way about anything. And for what it’s worth, the questions are usually about some bit of triviality, like whether the British like soft cookies or how the British feel about tourists.

Excuse me a minute while I go into the corner and yell at the paint. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The entire British nation loves camellias. Everyone who doesn’t left in disgust.

what do londoners think of american tourists

All Londoners? Okay, first we have to define London. It’s made up of 32 boroughs plus the City of London. The City of London is not London. So just to be clear, or possibly to confuse the issue a little more, there’s a difference between the City of London and the city of London. The City (capitalized) is a tiny little place with lots of financiers and a bunch of arcane traditions. If we’re talking about London itself, which an outsider might be silly enough to call call the city of London, we’re not talking about the City of London.

Is that clear?

The question is, do you, O prospective tourist who typed the question into a search engine, plan to visit all 32-plus boroughs? If not, maybe it’s only the single opinion held by all the residents of central London that matters to you. And, of course, they all hold that one opinion.

Or maybe it’s the opinion of the people who live in, work in, or commute to central London.

You see how complicated this gets.

Next we have to make sure they can tell American tourists from other brash English-speaking tourists. My Texas-born (although not usually Texas-accented) partner has been mistaken for Australian. She sounds roughly as Australian as I do, and I have a New York accent, although it’s not the accent some people think is the only New York accent. (Sorry. Life’s complicated.) We’re both regularly asked if we’re Canadian. I’m convinced this is an attempt at politeness. But you see my point. Are we talking about what all Londoners think of people they think are American tourists or of people who genuinely are American tourists.

And then there’s that whole business of what American means. I seem to be stumbling into this issue a lot lately. America involves two continents and that central bit that connects them, part of which isn’t Central but North America. American isn’t just the U.S. of What-do-we-call-this place?

If all that is murky enough, I think you’ll understand why I’m not going to answer the question. No answer is possible.

Conveniently, though, the question was followed by yet another one about the two-finger insult, and I’m grateful for that because I’d like to use it just now.

Nobody has yet asked what Americans think of the two-finger insult, but I’ll tell you anyway: They have no idea what it is.

You’re welcome.

what beer uk has that american doesn’t

Among many others, Doom Bar. Ask for that in a bar in Fridley, Minnesota, and see what happens.

Some of my most popular posts are about beer. Which I haven’t tasted in years. That qualifies me as an international expert on the subject.

why is britain called great britain

Because Big Honkin’ Britain lacks dignity and would lead to me being investigated by the Parliamentary Committee on Un-British Language.

why is called grand britain

Because you have cotton in your ears.

history of the plougman’s lunch

I came, I ordered, I ate, leaving the pickled onion, the chutney, and most of the salad untouched and making myself wonder why I’d ordered it, since what I actually ate was a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich on a very big plate.

If you want a more general history of the ploughman’s lunch, as opposed to a report on the one I got, you’ll find it here.

difference between british and american bueaurocacy

One of them has a second R in it. The other one also has a second R in it. We won’t get into the vowels. They’re best left to the experts.

The people who work for one will say please and thank you and will expect you to do the same. The people who work for the other won’t say thank you and will think you’re up to something if you work in a please. If you’re not sure which is which, leave me a comment and I’ll clarify it.

british manners

This is related to that thing about bureaucrats–or bueaucrats if you prefer.

The people who type this question into search engines have read a nineteenth century novel, or many nineteenth century novels, and think British manners involve knowing which of seventeen forks to use for the fish and not calling anyone by their first name until you’ve known them for as many years as you have forks on the table.

They haven’t noticed that different centuries have different manners, and so do different groups within a society. So, basically, British manners depend on who you’re talking to. What’s universal is that you don’t jump the queue (translation: butt into line) and you do say please and thank you.

A lot.

An absurd lot. In our local store, before it closed, I was thanked when I handed over whatever it was I wanted to buy. I was thanked again when I handed over my money, then thanked again at least once more–possibly when I was given my change or when I walked out the door. By that time I’d generally lost track of what I’d done to trigger it. Every so often, I was told, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you.”

Yes, that’s a direct, undoctored quote.

Why did the store close? It ran out of thank-you’s. You can blame Brexit if you like. They got held up at the border in anticipation of a no-deal crash-out.

At first I worried that I wasn’t managing to say enough you’re-welcome’s in response, but it turns out that no one expects them. I still haven’t figured out what is expected. You’d think after thirteen years I’d have worked that out, but you’d be wrong. I just thank people back. Not quite as many times, but as many as I can manage.

It’s okay. I’m American. People expect me to be rude, or at least strange. I like to think they make allowances and notice that I am trying.

You also say please a lot. The American form of politeness is saying can I? or could I? as in “Could I have  a can of Coke?” Here that sounds rude if a please doesn’t hitch a ride on the request, and it sounds absurd either way, because the question isn’t whether you could or couldn’t have it, it’s about whether you’d like one.

Final bit of politeness? You never, ever butt into a line. Not even if you’re bleeding.

stéréotypes of u.k

That the British don’t do emotions, or possibly even have them.

That they have seventeen forks to a place setting and know what to do with them.

That they have Manners–capital M because they’re so important and so British that no one else will ever get them right.

That everything stops at 4 p.m. for afternoon tea.

That no one uses teabags.

That they all have a single, posh accent. Except for the ones who sound like Dick Van Dyke in the first Mary Poppins.

Please note: I’m not claiming any of those are true. They’re just what I happened to dredge out of the lazy stereotype pool at short notice.

morris dancers

Morris dancers are what prove that whatever you think British manners are, you’re wrong. Why’s that? Because everyone who isn’t a morris dancer makes fun of morris dancing. Even if we don’t want to. The social pressure’s immense.

For further information on morris dancing, I refer you to that well-known non-expert, me.

how to be an aristocrat

You arrange to be born into a family with a title, silly.

You didn’t do that, you say, and you’re trying to correct your mistake? Too late. You blew your chance. Because that’s the thing about aristocracy: It’s a closed group. Sure, people have historically been given titles who didn’t start with them, but don’t think the people who inherited theirs are impressed. They’ve all known each other since before their great grandparents many times over were born and they’re not anxious to expand the gene pool.

Why does anybody think they can (or want to) worm their way into this foolishness? I have no idea, but I get regular variations on the question, all because I wrote a post about an aristocrat behaving badly and put a snarky title on it. I don’t recommend using him as a model.

I don’t recommend using any other aristocrat as a model either. 

is sticky date pudding bad for cats

The last version of this question I got was about whether sticky toffee pudding was bad for cats. I thought it was a glitch–just one strange cat owner who’d gotten loose on the internet–but apparently there’s a new idea loose in the world: feeding sticky puddings to cats and worrying about whether it’s bad for them.

When did the world get so strange, people?

why are mps wearing roses

On May 8, MPs wore white roses during Prime Minister’s Question Time–a slot dedicated to making the prime minister of the moment squirm and suffer. The roses marked World Ovarian Cancer Day. The only thing Parliament can agree on at the moment is that ovarian cancer is bad, but at least no one spoke in its defense.

Several perfectly sensible news articles covered the story, and they’re where I found my information. How did someone asking about it land here?

The House of Lords: debate and carpeting

A recent search engine question about the carpet in the House of Lords brought some poor soul to Notes recently, and since it raised an important question that I’d never written –or thought–about, I did some digging.

Yes, my friends, I’m here to research the things you have too much sense to bother with.

And just so you don’t think the question was a one-time thing, a couple of weeks later another one came along: “carpet colours in house of lords and rules on where you can talk.” I’ll do rules and traditions another time. This is long enough already, and surely the carpet’s more important.

Let’s start with what the carpet looks like. I won’t steal a copyrighted photo, so you’ll have to click a link. Is it worth bothering? Probably not. But in case you need help finding the topic of the conversation, it’s the stuff on the floor.

Irrelevant photo: This is not the carpet in the House of Lords, it’s a windflower.

What else is there to know about the carpet? Oh, lots. Let’s look at a couple of freedom of information requests on the subject that Lord Google led me to.

Yes, folks. Someone somewhere thought the carpet mattered enough that they used the Freedom of Information law to pry this sensitive information out of a reluctant government. In response to a 2018 request, here’s what someone or other wrote:

The House of Lords and House of Commons are separate organisations and also separate public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The carpet in the House of Lords chamber is a Wilton Brussels weave carpet (supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd). We do not hold information relating to the House of Commons.” 

Well, when someone in politics evades a question that obviously, you have to figure it’s important. So I kept going. A separate (I think) request, also from 2018, unearthed the following:

“Information about the carpet used in the House of Commons Chamber is held, and is as follows: the carpet is in a Wilton weave style and is supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd. It has two colours of Scott Mottle, green and brown. The pattern has been copied ever since its first installation, in October 1950.”

Oh, they make it sound so innocuous, but let’s turn to a 1966 debate. I was going to cut it back, because they go on and on. Also round and about and in all directions that aren’t necessarily forward. But the puffery and nonsense tells you a lot about the House of Lords, not to mention how important they consider the carpet.

I copied it from Hansards, which records Parliamentary debates on all the important topics of the day. It came with its own links embedded. If you’re relentlessly interested, you’re welcome to follow them. Me? I can’t even be bothered taking them out. 

A bit of background, since this is about two red stripes in the carpet. I did my humble best to find an authoritative source to explain what the hell these are about. The best I can do is tell you that the Commons has two red stripes that are two swords’ widths apart and MPs aren’t allowed to cross them. If someone wanted to spill blood, surely they’d step over them, but they don’t. Because they’re not allowed.

And, of course, they have pink ribbons in the cloakroom to hang their swords on so they don’t bring them into the chamber.

So let’s assume the red stripes in the House of Lords has something to do with all that.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. [The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have put a red stripe down the carpet on each side of the House.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I recognise that the noble Lord has raised a matter of great importance to the business of the House. I hope the House will accept the view that a question of this type might perhaps in future be more suitably addressed to the Chairman of Committees, who is Chairman of the Administration Committee which is responsible for the area in which the House of Lords conducts its business.

I understand that there are two very clear precedents for this stripe. If we refer to the portraits which can be found in your Lordships’ House, there is, for instance, in the West Front Corridor a picture by Mr. F. Sargent bearing the date 1880. From that it can be seen that there is a stripe running the full length of your Lordships’ Chamber. Furthermore, I believe that in the Bishops’ Corridor there is a portrait of your Lordships’ House sitting during the Home Rule debate, and although the stripe is not as distinct as the one in the picture hanging in the West Front Corridor, it is quite clearly there.

The noble Lord may remember that before the recent renovations in this House there was sisal matting throughout, which contained strips of carpet with an edging of colour. The view then taken was that this represented the old stripe which was evident in those portraits. It was decided by the Administration Committee on February 8—and the noble Lord himself is a very distinguished member of that Committee—that when the new carpet was laid the stripe should be included. The House may be interested to know that there is no reference in our Standing Orders to this particular stripe. Therefore, the noble Lords who sit on the Cross-Benches will not be inhibited in addresing [nope, the misspelling isn’t mine, it’s theirs] us from their place. If I may give a personal view, I think it is a very considerable improvement.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that very long and detailed reply. I will certainly bear in mind what he said about where such questions should in future be addressed. But may I draw his attention to the painting in the Cholmondeley Room, which bears no date but which shows no stripe; and at the same time to the painting in the Bishops’ Corridor which again I think does not show the stripe. Is it not possible that some mistake occurred in the painting in the Ministers’ Corridor? Furthermore, is it not a fact that such a stripe is not needed in this House, where the presence of the Lords Spiritual [those are the bishops who sit in the Lords] is probably enough to curb the exuberance of the Lords Temporal [those are the non-bishops]?

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I should not wish to reduce the precedents which I have quoted, but the noble Lord will be aware that there is such a thing as artist’s licence, which may have applied in the recent portrait of your Lordships’ House. In regard to the Bishops, well, we know that our present Bishops are well behaved, but history records that that has not always been the case.

LORD CHORLEY My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied that the increasing use of green in the carpets and elsewhere in this House does not mark an insidious infiltration from another place? [That’s a reference to the House of Commons, which is color coded green.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I gather that in the past the carpets were green. I am not sure whether I am colour blind, but I have been informed that this colour is blue. However, I think that the pink breaks up the blueness—there may be no political significance in this—and makes it a little more palatable—shall I say?—to noble Lords on this side of the House.

End of excerpt. We’re talking among our own ignoble selves now.

A 2017 discussion, also in Hansards, was about why the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room had been removed and whether it would be replaced–and when (although no one was so gauche as to use a dash). The answer was about the Cholmondeley Terrace. It said the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room hadn’t been altered.

Sounds like a coverup to me.

So what can we learn from all this? That precedent matters. Why? Because the U.K. has an unwritten constitution. That means no one knows what the hell is in it. It includes the Magna Carta, law, precendent, and the entire library of scripts from The Archers.

The Archers? The world’s longest-running radio soap opera. 

Or maybe it only feels like the longest-running soap opera. *

Where were we? Ah. Precedent. Precedent is part of the unwritten constitution, so if precendent says there’s a red stripe, then that’s part of the constitution. You don’t want to get this wrong. Consult the portrait gallery. Go through the trash. This matters.

And you thought Brexit was difficult.

We can also learn that you could spend a lifetime writing about Parliament and never run out of material. And that the Lords sound every bit as pompous as you’d expect.

And that you couldn’t possibly make it up.

 

  • The Archers really is the longest running radio soap opera. And it feels like it is.