Mrs. Baggit Struggles to Keep Britain Tidy

The first time Wild Thing and I visited the U.K., Maggie Thatcher was the prime minister and whatever ministry was in charge of roadsides had planted them with metal signs saying, “Mrs. Baggit Says, ‘Keep Britain Tidy.’”

That bit of brilliant public relations was finished off with a picture of a tied-off bag with a face—Mrs. Baggit’s, presumably, happily stuffed with garbage. It was impossible not to connect her image with Mrs. Thatcher’s, and some small part of my brain continues to insist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Thatcher’s real name was Maggie Baggit.

Irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

We did a lot of driving on that trip, so we spent a lot of time looking at the signs and finding funny voices to quote them in.

“Mrs. Baggit says…”

Mrs. Baggit had a lot to say on that trip, all of it scold-y, although I can’t remember exactly what it was anymore. Except, of course, for “Keep Britain Tidy.”

To understand why that kept us amused, you need to know that tidy sounds different to an American ear than to a British one. To me, tidy is fussy. It’s small. All I have to do is think about it and I want to make bitsy motions with my fingertips, as if I’m cleaning up a dollhouse. As far as I can tell, none of that is true in the U.K. It’s just a word here. It means neat and doesn’t make your fingers do funny things in the empty air, although H. tells me the Mrs. Baggit part sounds fussy.

I should stop here and admit that when I started that last paragraph I was going to speak for an entire nation: For us (us here being all Americans—every last differentiated, argumentative one of us) tidy is fussy. Then some minimal sense of modesty (not to mention accuracy) caught up with me and I thought it might be nice if I didn’t mistake my mind for the mind of an entire, not to mention large and varied, country, even if I did grow up and live most of my life there. So I’ve backed off a bit. But I still hold that it has different overtones to an American ear than to a British one. That much, I think, is fair.

Language is like that. We think of it as a solid, but it’s not. It’s one of those slow liquids, like Silly Putty, that changes shape depending on what holds it, or who.

So how successful was the campaign? I never saw British roadsides before it started, so I can’t make a comparison, but I know this much: If you look for litter here, you’ll find it. And if you don’t look for it, you’ll find it anyway. I’ve seen places with more, but Mrs. Baggit hasn’t stopped the litterbugs mid-throw.

And who in their right mind thought she would?

16 thoughts on “Mrs. Baggit Struggles to Keep Britain Tidy

  1. Down here, the signs are “Don’t mess with Texas!” – Fittingly, considering the Texan state of mind, isn’t it? ;) Well, Texas IS a state of mind, as the saying goes.
    Have a good one,


      • Hi Ellen,
        It certainly does. Btw, that’s what I think is a great advantage of travelling to or even living in foreign countries: you really learn to understand them. Like Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That, btw, viz. helping people to understand the US better, is one aim I hope to achieve with my blogging.
        Have a great day,


  2. In South Africa (around the same time) we had a cartoon ostrich called Zibi (pronounce zee-bee; not actually sure about the spelling) fulfilling the same function, though he was targeted more at children. Since then we have reached a point where we jokingly refer to the blue plastic bag as our national flower. The move about a decade ago to have people pay for plastic bags did not really do anything to remedy the situation.


    • Two comments: Minnesota claims the mosquito as its state bird. Unofficially, of course. And we’re still arguing about whether paying for plastic bags will solve the litter problem. I guess we should move ahead and argue about something else we’re not going to do.


  3. Ha! True story about the term, “tidy,” Ellen. As a fellow differentiated and opinionated Yank abroad, I concur. But having lived here forever and a day, I have had to adapt to be understood by the natives. As for the littering, Mrs. Baggit was before my time (I moved here in 1993). But, like the Indian on the roadside that was THE anti-litter campaign of the early to mid 1970s, I am sure it has had only minimal success in preventing people from tossing cigarette butts and gum wrappers out the car windows. Only way to change people is to change them from the inside out, I think. All the signs and commercials in the world cannot do that.


  4. Your observations on language are spot on. What I find endlessly fascinating are the regional dialects and terms within our own country. New England clings to many old-world terms: “rubbish” for trash, “parlor” for living room, and so on. And down here in Virginia? We “cut” the lights off and on. And I agree, tidy is fussy.


    • Regional variations are as fascinating and the international ones–I agree. When I moved to Minnesota, I started hearing about rubber binders instead of rubber bands, and people said “Do you want to go with?” instead of “Do you want to go with me?” It took a while before I could convince myself that just not sounding like me didn’t make them wrong.

      I once listened to a group of white women from various parts of the south tease each other about their accents and word usage, and the funniest part of the whole conversation was that I couldn’t hear the differences. To my northern ear, it was all one accent.


  5. Pingback: What the world wants to know about Britain | Notes from the U.K.

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