Strange stuff non-Brits want to know about Britain

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).

cut kitten picture

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie and the laundry

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.

Bad blogger.

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.

60 thoughts on “Strange stuff non-Brits want to know about Britain

  1. Thank you! Ever since being taught to read and write by Irish nuns (who also maintained an unnatural devotion to the letter U), I’ve wondered what it was that Brit-speakers find so alluring about all those extra U-letters. I’ve gone through life as an American with the uneasy conviction that “color” and “parlor” were just too damn short…

    But having spent more than three decades with a man who could (and a few weeks ago did) walk down a street in Paris lined with sex shops and very scantily-clad women only to point to a used book store and ask if I’d noticed the antique map sets in the window, I have to say that the subject of British kink doesn’t really come up that often at our house. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Of course the English are kinky. Who else ever got all hot and bothered over an exposed table leg??? At one stage I … well, I’d like to say I “made a study of” Victorian pornography, but that implies a lot more dedication than was actually the case. Basically I read it – a lot of it – and no, it’s not especially a turn-on, but it’s quite fascinating what it reveals about the mindset of the time. In particular, it involves a lot of spanking And that wasn’t a whole lot of time ago … as is evidenced by the fact that we now have 50 shades of EL James, who is, English and indisputably into kinky spanking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I heard about the Victorians and the table (and piano, by the way) legs–and even the word leg–I pretty much decided that everything made them think about sex. How else can we understand the appeal? Or should that be threat?

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      • I think Americans, with their Puritan orientation, see sex as a threat. The English – or at least the Victorians – positively throb with desire for the forbidden fruit.

        Seriously, though, WHY are people – or at any rate Westerners; I don’t know that this applies to other cultural groups – so desperately obsessed with sex?

        Liked by 1 person

        • How about these for possibilities?

          1. Because we inherited a belief system that tells us we shouldn’t be feeling what we’re feeling.

          2. Because on top of that a very sophisticated marketing industry’s using it to sell us everything imaginable and in the process is selling virtual sex nonstop.

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          • Both true, I agree. But when you go back to the source of the belief system, you read things like “Song of Songs”, and the instruction to recently married men to stay home and satisfy their wives rather than going to war, and you realize that it’s not actually as anti-sex as many of its modern proponents claim. Also, that same source comes out pretty strongly against all sorts of other things – like lying, for instance, or vanity. A politician can rock the nation and/or wreck his career over a single sexual indiscretion, but a lie? Meh. We expect politicians to lie. Most of us don’t get through the week without at least a little one. As for vanity, may I point you toward the Kardashians? (Sorry, you can turn away now!)

            As for the marketing industry – yes, but it wouldn’t work if we weren’t so damn obsessed with sex in the first place.

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            • I think it was a recent BBC program called Sex and the Church that made the argument that it was the Christian church that tilted Western culture in the direction of being anti-sex. If that’s true, then what the Christians call the Old Testament is the wrong place to look.

              And having said that, I should admit that I basically ignorant about the bible–either half. So I’ll shut up now.

              And you’re right about the marketing now working if we weren’t obsessed. Chicken. Egg. Chicken. Egg….

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the kinkiness comes from a rebellion against the ‘stiff upper lip’. If we must behave ourselves in public then we certainly shall not behave ourselves in private. Similarly with the singing, it can be a bit unseemly to break into song under ordinary social circumstances but with a little lubrication our self-expression comes tumbling out. The important thing is not to confuse the two – singing in the bedroom doesn’t always go down well and kinkiness in public will get you arrested.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, good……I have been missing the irrelevant photo of the day over here…..that’s an especially good one! Do enjoy your post and learning the boundaries of what you will do to educate your readers! 38 years with Wild Thing is MOST IMPRESSIVE! Congrats on that!

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  5. I smiled the whole way through reading this post today: ) what an interesting look into why the U in British English and I must admit that t’was I who asked you about it. I’m thoroughly impressed with and grateful for the explanation you gave!
    Hmmm and about the kinky question too…my query seems rather boring in contrast!: )
    Have a lovely weekend and PS your cat and laundry photo is adorable …
    Cheers to you from our NYC ,
    *Lia

    Liked by 1 person

  6. English is a very difficult language to learn and its spelling conventions simply require memorization, imho. There is a lot of French (as well as other languages) in our idiom and so all this makes sense. Thank U for illuminating so much on this one letter. Now, I am sure you can do the honours for all sorts of other English pecularities. :-D Fun read!

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    • I’ve often stopped to think how lucky I was not to have to learn English as a foreign language. When I fought my way through the spelling, I didn’t have anything to compare it with, so being handed lists of words to memorize seemed natural. If I’d come to it as an adult, it would’ve been overwhelming–like learning the gender of all those French nouns (which I still haven’t done).

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  7. OK … Hello Ellen.😁 One stone. Two birds. English spelling is undoubtedly kinky. The fck it is you say. English spelling is kinky because it was whipped/beaten into shape by a huge number of folk over the generations.I love the language.
    French is the language of love. German is the language of purpose and efficiency. English is full of kinks.
    I don’t know.
    All the best
    Kris.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Opps…you caught me watching you but then I caught you watching me! Explain? Reading your comments on the honourable less favourable U in writing “British” as opposed to writing…that other way….and you were reading MOSTLY ABOUT JOTS which has been translated from many other writings in many other languages. Go figure that I think you and WILD THING (my favourite Trogg funeral song just in case you were curious) should be impressed with that high number of togetherness. Another curious answer to an unasked question: love the name Fast Eddie…used to call my ex…Fast Eddie. Don’t ask what he used to call me….
    Oh…yes, it is half-cream not the double cream that you asked about. I’m coming over with some to put in the coffee you should be brewing about now…yes, please and thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d write something incisive and clever in response, but after reading that my head’s spinning too much to hold the words in place. And I have all these extra U’s and can’t figure out what to do with them.

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  9. After reading Lia’s (from NYC) comment, it occurs to me that we do love to cut out ALL the unnecessary letters (our love of acronyms) vs. the Brits who seem to love adding all sorts of letters that they don’t bother pronouncing (vis-à-vis place names). I can’t help but wonder what it says about the national character (if there is such a thing.)
    Loving this series of exploring the “cultural” differences on either side of the pond.
    Then there’s that 38 years. Very impressive indeed. I bet WT has stuck it out because there’s likely never a dull moment with you around. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nor with her. Wild Thing wasn’t a random choice of name–I’ve called her that for years.

      Interesting you should bring up acronyms. Lots of words get shortened here. The Liberal Democrats are the Lib Dems. A list of jobs people do in rotation is a rota. (I just ran into rota in a novel, misused by an American character who probably wouldn’t even know the word, never mind think it. I love spotting that sort of thing. Probably because I live in fear of doing it myself, and whenever I notice that someone else has, it’s one instance that wasn’t mine.)

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    • I don’t think there’s any chance that’s going to happen. American spellings have been in place too long. They’re deeply embedded by now.

      As a former editor, I find myself on both sides of the debate on the ways the language changes. On the one hand, some of the common grammatical errors and misuses of language (notice the way I’ve described them and how slanted it is) drove me nuts when I was still working. On the other hand, I not only acknowledge that language does and must change, I believe there’s a wonderful energy (sometimes even poetry) in the changes, and that the spoken language drives the written, more formal language. So I’m stridently for and against change. I’ve never been able to entirely reconcile the two impulses.

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  10. I intended to comment when this post was fresh and new, but my life got in the way, so here is my belated comment: Another improvement change we Americans made: replacing the letter S with the far superior alphabetical choice, the letter Z (agonize, organize, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester, is one of my all-time favorite books. This story of the creation of the Oxford Dictionary is incredible. I wonder why Canada follows Britain with the addition (haha) of the U, as opposed to the U.S. It reminds me of Latin America dropping the “vosotros” from their Spanish usage. But all the Spanish speaking countries in South America follow that. Not like Canada vs the U.S..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to ignore this for a year or so. It got lost in the inner workings of WordPress, where I just found and liberated it. By now, you’ve probably forgotten all about it, but your comment about about vosotros is interesting, so I’ll respond anyway.

      I did a quick google search and found a claim (no idea if it’s correct) that the Spaniards in Latin America came primarily from Andalucia, which didn’t use vosotros. If that’s true, it puts the disappearance of usted in a different category from what happened to the U in Canada and the U.S. The Americans dropped the U quite deliberately in an effort to simplify the language. I expect it was part of an effort to establish a national culture–something Canada would emphatically not have followed.

      Liked by 1 person

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