Two stray questions about Britain that people have asked me to address, which I’ll group together because they’re 600% unrelated: kinky sex and the letter U.
Are the English particularly kinky?
Katie Powell wrote, “I want to know why English folks are so kinky.” I asked her to be more specific and she answered, “The Brits exude this very staid exterior, but then there is the underbelly of kinky sex — maybe the kinkiest in the world? Not violent or dangerous, just kinky . . . .”
Sadly, I’m not willing to do any original research on the topic. Nope, not even for my blog. A few other things I won’t do, in case you need to know about them: I will not eat haggis in order to tell you what it tastes like. Not particularly because it’s haggis but because it involves meat. You can get vegetarian haggis, but that’s like vegetarian bacon—it is vegetarian but it’s not bacon, so it’s not much use if you’re trying to report on bacon. I also won’t get stinking drunk so I can find out if the tendency of drunks in this country to sing is cultural or due to some mysterious influence of the geography. So, sex in the British Isles? It does go on. I’m sure of that. But Wild Thing and I have been together for—wait, let me wrestle with a few numbers—38 years now. That’s long enough, really, for a person to make a commitment to a relationship. To get comfortable in it, and not want to wreck it. And then there are my own tastes to consider (which, forget it, you don’t need to know about, and very probably don’t want to).
I can report that back in the Stone Ages, when phone booths were the kind of thing you found on any city street, lots of London phone booths were plastered with stickers advertising sexual services designed for specific tastes–mostly S&M, at least as I remember it. I’d never seen the sex trade advertised that way. Does that mean the tastes of actual people here are kinkier than they are anywhere else? I haven’t a clue. Maybe they’re just out in the open more—although I’ve known some Americans whose interests were far from white bread and who had a lot more to say about them than I, for one, wanted to hear. They didn’t plaster them on phone booths, but then they weren’t in business, so they had no reason to.
So this separates into two question: Is there a difference in kink level? Do different cultures channel their kinks in different directions? It’s also possible that the definition of kinky is worth some thought. It assumes there’s a standard practice out there, and I wonder how standard anyone really is. I haven’t a clue, but I’ll leave you with that thought and move on to a question where I can be more useful.
History of the letter U in British and American English
Once upon a time I knew who asked me about this, but I didn’t paste either the name or the link into my notes, and although I swam back through the comments trying to find where it came from it, it was too far and I sank. That’s me you’ll notice on the bottom of all your insightful, hysterical, wonderful comment threads, blowing the last electronic bubbles out of my lungs.
So I’m going to be rude and not acknowledge the source of the question.
However. Someone asked me to write about the history of the letter U in British and American usage, and if you’ll let me know who you are I’ll provide a link to your blog. In the meantime, the tale takes us back to two of the most influential compilers of early dictionaries.
When the British first settled in North America, English spelling was still fluid. You went to school, you were issued a toolkit with 26 letters, and as long as another person in possession of that same basic toolkit could figure out what you meant, you were free to spell a word any old which way you wanted. I may exaggerate a bit, but not much.
It was Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, who’s usually credited with (or blamed for) standardizing English spelling, although—as is usual with this kind of thing—there was a general movement in that direction and rather than creating the momentum himself he rode in on its tide. But still, if you don’t like the U in British spellings of words like favour and honour, Old Sam Johnson’s your bad guy. Up until then, English had used -our interchangeably with -or. According to an article in Bartleby Johnson “established the position of the u in the –our words. . . . Other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England.”
He was so knocked out by the U (which I’m capitalizing and the Bartleby entry doesn’t) that he tried to introduce translatour, emperour, oratour and horrour. Oddly enough, although he kept exterior U-less, its opposite was interiour.
Johnson’s reasoning was that the -our form acknowledged modern English’s French roots. If you know any French, you’ll have noticed that the argument’s shaky. French uses -eur, not -our: honeur; faveur. But never mind, an argument doesn’t have to make sense to be effective. British English is firmly committed to sticking a U into any word it possibly can. And, hell, they’re free, so why not?
If Johnson’s usually credited with standardizing English spelling, Noah Webster’s usually credited with divorcing American spelling from its British ex, although here too other people were already agitating for that and he too rode a tide he didn’t create. The United States was a new nation. It wanted a new culture. You know what it’s like: You have a revolution, you rename the streets, tear down the political statues, replace the schoolbooks.
Webster came down heavily on the side of simplified spellings, and his early books deleted a lot of the language’s silent letters: the B in thumb, the O in leopard, the A in thread. You could cut a 300-page book down to 150 pages if you kept that up. Also the K that was then in frolick, the spare L in traveller and jeweller. He transposed the -RE in words like centre.
“Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” he said. Or quite possibly wrote. But let’s not split hairs. The point is that they were spelling phonetically and logically, and he set out to follow their lead with spellings like wimmin, tung, porpess, and fantom.
They didn’t all catch on, and as a result generations of schoolchildren toddle home with spelling lists to memorize for no better reason than that they’ll look ignorant if they don’t spell the words in the approved way. Think what they might have time to learn instead if our language made sense.
George Bernard Shaw, in demonstrating the need for rationalized English spelling, is said to have argued that, given the rules of the English language, you should be able to spell fish ghoti: GH as in tough, O as in women, TI and in nation.
Don’t use that on your standardized exams, kids. The people who mark them won’t be impressed.