The Emmits Come to Cornwall

Summer in Cornwall and the place is full of emmits.

What’s an emmit? A tourist—or in British English, a holidaymaker. And it’s not a compliment. In Cornish, it means ant, and when I asked a friend why tourists were ants she said, “It’s because they line up on the cliffs and look out to sea.”

I’ve never seen ants line up on the cliffs and look out to sea, but I’ve only lived in Cornwall for eight and a half years and all sorts of things happen around here that I don’t know about, never mind understand.

I can’t remember who told me that, but I suspect it was the same person who, when I asked what twee meant, said, “It means”—brief pause here—“twee.”

After that, I bought a dictionary of British English, and just to be on the safe side, one of British slang. Twee, they tell me, means “affectedly quaint.” They don’t mention this, but it does also means “twee.” You just can’t argue with that.

The beach at sunset

The beach at sunset

Anyway, the place is full of emmits. And that’s good, because now that the mines are closed and the seas are damn near fished out, the tourist industry makes up a huge part of the Cornish economy. Emmits rent cottages and flats and rooms. They buy art and ice cream and little plastic spades for the beach. They buy groceries and funny hats and touristy stuff that they’ll throw out in six months. So we need them.

They also drive us nuts.

Wild Thing was driving to Boscastle last week, on a narrow road that for most of its length is too narrow to have lane markings. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t wide enough for two cars to pass. In the winter, we barely slow down to pass each other. But summer brings us traffic jams. The car in front of Wild Thing stopped every time it saw an oncoming car.

This isn’t a bad thing to do, really, and Wild Thing and I are the last people who should be snotty about it, although that doesn’t stop us. When we first came here, we snuggled our rented car into many a hedge and cowered there while other drivers judged the width of the road for us. Not because we’re not timid drivers—we’ve both driven cab for serious lengths of time—but because we weren’t used to the roads. The lanes (where there were lanes) were narrow and almost every turn was blind, on top of which we were driving on the wrong side of the road. It was better to pull over and annoy everyone than to scrape another car.

Now that we’re part of the everyone who’s being annoyed, though, it’s easy to forget all that.

Eventually, the emmit-driven car ahead of her met another emmit-driven car and both of them stopped, each waiting for the other driver to judge the distance. For several long minutes, it looked like a World War I battlefield, with both sides dug into their trenches and no one able to gain ground. Wild Thing was about to get out and ask if she could drive the closer car past when, finally, someone inched forward and, at long last, the deadlock was broken.

She told the story yesterday, when M. and M. and J. all dropped by our house, and J. said that there was plenty of room for two cars to pass. Except, she added as a sort of footnote, in a couple of places.

That’s what we’re like, the everyone the emmits annoy. There’s plenty of room except where there isn’t. What’s the problem? A car and a bus can pass in most places, we agreed, and so can a car and a tractor. You’d have thought it was a highway, the way we talked.

I should now confess that when I’ve written for Americans planning to drive in Britain, I’ve suggested pulling over on the narrowest of roads if the driver’s not sure there’s space to pass. It may drive us nuts but we don’t want an accident either.

Do you notice how neatly I’ve slipped into saying we? Wild Thing and I, with our unreconstructed American accents, don’t think of ourselves as emmits anymore.

When I put emmit into Google to double-check the spelling (I worked as an editor for much longer than I worked as a cab driver, so yeah, I would do that), I was first led to a Wikipedia entry that claimed the word was ancient British. I wasn’t sure what that meant, since ancient British was several languages, so I looked further. Under the spelling emmet, though, I found an entry that defined it as (and I’m quoting from memory), “Holidaymakers who sit their fat asses down on our beaches.” I thought about providing a link but figured someone would edit that out pretty quickly. It now says nothing about beaches or fat asses, but it does say some of the “local Cornish Folk” use the word to describe anyone who hasn’t lived here for twenty-five years.

It’s okay. I drove cab. Believe me, I’ve been called worse.

23 thoughts on “The Emmits Come to Cornwall

  1. Haha! A funny post that I can completely relate to! We live on a single track lane with passing places and many 90-degree blind corners. It gets used as a rat run for school mums and city types using it to shortcut. I don’t mind, so long as they know how to back up when it makes sense to do so. It drives me mad. I often reverse when it’s not my turn just to save time! :-) Not emmets even. These are just people who should NEVER take a single track road! ta…MH


    • Glad you raise that. I really do have to write about backing up–who does it and when and how. I was reading an expat blog the other day where people were giving each other advice on what to wear to a dinner party (my advice: clothes), when what they really need to discuss is backing up.


  2. We used to call them ‘flat-landers’ when I lived in the Sierras. Folks who would slow to a crawl at each twisty spot on the narrow highway, then go like hell at a straight stretch where you might have hoped to pass them. ;)


  3. Same here in Fredericksburg with the tourists: they do bring a lot of money, but, especially on the weekends, Main Street IS crowded. Well, until we moved here a few months ago, we often were tourists here ourselves. How the perspective changes! ;)
    As to driving on these narrow lanes; my experience – even if I have been to Cornwall once – is more from the Lake District, but basically the same. The locals drive along these like maniacs, and don’t seem to expect any other traffic coming the opposite way. For me, it was even worse, since at that time I was there with my own German car, which meant sitting on the wrong side. But I managed – with only a few minor scratches on the car, when I had to “flee” into the hedges and bushes along the roads.
    Have a great day,


    • Now that I drive like one of the maniacs, it doesn’t seem all that fast. But you’re right that there are always a few convinced that no one’s going to be coming around that blind curve in the same single lane they’re using.


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  6. Hi. I’m Mike(56yrs) from Kent and I’ll be getting married to a Cornish girl soon and moving down to Cornwall. Any advice on the locals and how to react to them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure. Be friendly. Talk to people. If you’re in a village or small town, say hello, even to people you don’t already know. Not long after she moved to our village, an English friend told a Cornish neighbor that she’d always heard the Cornish wouldn’t be friendly but they were.

      “Well,” he said, “you talk to us.”

      It does make a difference.


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