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.
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.