Immigration, body language, and the apostrophe

A few weeks ago, I had one of those moments that remind me how immigrantish I am, even after eleven years in Britain. I mention it because so many anti-immigrant complaints come down to this: Immigrants too immigrantish. Why can’t they just be like us?

Mind you, I don’t think everybody staying in the cultural boxes they were born to is a recipe for universal happiness, let alone world peace. But those immigrantish moment do remind me why people who live in cultures they didn’t grow up in don’t instantly blend into the new one.

What happened was this: My singing buddy, G., and I were working on a song and decided we’d sing the chorus twice because it’s short and In the kind of music we sing joining in on the chorus is eleven tenths of the fun. So, we figured, let’s give ‘em more chorus.

Then managed to forgot how many times we’d sung it. So, clever me, I thought I’d keep count on my fingers: index finger, one time through; index and middle finger, twice through and time to move on.

By the time I realized what I’d done, I was laughing too hard to sing.

If you’re not British, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Holding up two fingers (if the palm’s facing the owner of the fingers) is right up there with flipping someone the bird. Or is flipping the bird only understood in the U.S.? It’s right up there with holding your middle finger in the air, all by its lonesome. If I’m still basing myself too heavily in the insults and explanations of my native culture, let’s try this: It’s a serious insult.

A photo that would’ve been relevant to last week’s post: This is the National Trust/Cadbury poster promoting their egg hunts. You’ll notice that for all the complaints about Easter being airbrushed out, the first line that the eye picks up uses the word.

I’ve lived in the U.K. long enough to know that, but my nerves and muscles haven’t. They’re stubbornly American. On the instinctive level, which is where they do their work, two fingers are just two fingers. If I want to order two teas and there’s some confusion about how many I asked for? May all the gods I don’t believe in protect me, those are the fingers I’d be most likely to hold up. It’s long-distance communication. Communication that carries over the noise of a cafe.

It’s also a good way to very seriously insult someone.

But that’s the thing about nerves and muscles. They work faster than the brain. Faster than the thought, You’re in a country where you don’t count on your fingers that way.

So that’s one reason immigrants are so stubbornly immigrantish: Unless you move to a new country when you’re young, some parts of you just don’t change. Even if you set out to adapt your habits, one by one by one, as I haven’t, there’s always something left.

How do people count on their fingers here? I have no idea. In some countries, I’ve been told, you start with the thumb. Two coffees? That’s the thumb and index finger. Hold up the thumb and middle finger and you’re likely to end up with three coffees.  But in Britain? I can’t remember anyone waving fingers around to let someone else know how many teas or coffees or beers they want. For all I know, it’s an un-British way to communicate.

D. swears that if a doctor asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” it will always be three. I don’t remember the reason it won’t be one, but she says they’ll be afraid to hold up two and are too lazy to hold up four or five.

Why is sticking two fingers up an insult? No one seems to know. The usual story has to do with the Battle of Agincourt, which was won by English archers and the longbow. The English are still sticking two fingers in the air to show the French they haven’t lost the ones that matter to an archer. Unfortunately, every place I found it explained that way also said it probably wasn’t true.

But if you hear about me getting into a brawl somewhere, it’ll be because it was noisy and I was trying to ask for two of something.


From body language, let’s move to the written language. My relocated friend J. pointed me in the direction of this story;

A vigilante has been roving night-time Bristol for thirteen years now, correcting the apostrophes in signs. Yes, friends, someone has dedicated his life to that, and the BBC interviewed him early in April.

Is what he’s doing illegal? “It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place,” he said. And although proofing your own writing is a losing battle (I’ll quote on that anytime I have to explain a typo on the blog), I’ve proofed that quote three times to make sure the apostrophe was in the right spot.

The interview led a newspaper columnist, Catherine Bennett, to point out that he’s not the grammar vigilante he claims (somewhere; I’m not sure where) to be, because grammar’s one thing and punctuation’s another. And that’s a powerful argument for not claiming to be an expert on anything: Sooner or later you’ll get something wrong and someone else will find it. And point a finger at you and feel clever about it. That someone may not be an expert themselves, but it takes a whole lot less expertise to find one mistake than it does never to make any.

All this led me to learn that chain stores are dropping their apostrophes all over Britain’s high streets. So far, no pedestrian casualties have been reported.

If you’re in the American Midwest, the high street is the equivalent of Main Street. If you’re anywhere in the U.S. except New York, it’s the equivalent of downtown. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to muddle through without a translation. Waterstones—the bookstore chain that was once the bad guy in literary circles because it was forcing out independent bookstores but has become the good guy because it’s at least a real bookstore, not Amazon or something else on the internet—has dropped its apostrophe because that works better online. Barclays, Marks and Spencer, and a few others have done the same.

If you want more examples, the comment on this story has more of them than the story itself, which is pretty minimal.

In the U.S., place names are apostropheless because the U.S. Post Office doesn’t believe in them. Harpers Ferry comes to mind. If apostrophes are clothing, Harpers Ferry runs around stark naked.

In Britain, the rule on place names seems to be, Do anything you damn well please. Earl’s Court has an apostrophe if it’s the tube station but not if it’s the event venue, which is Earls Court. (Sorry, event venue is a ridiculous phrase but its the description I found and it knocked any real language out of my brain) On the other hand, the Barons Court tube station has no apostrophe. I could go on, but enough.

The Bristol vigilante will never be out of work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay.

58 thoughts on “Immigration, body language, and the apostrophe

  1. You have a errant capital I (‘and In the kind of music we sing’). This has not made me feel clever at all so Im going to deliberately miss an apostrophe for solidarity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Two coffees? To avoid offence, simply turn your hand around, palm facing out (Churchill style). Yes, I suppose it could still offend someone if done abroad but probably less likely to offend in the UK than the two fingered salute with the palm facing inwards.

    I think flipping the bird is just as common place here in the U.K. as the two fingered salute (or maybe I just have the wrong kind of friends).

    We define the two insults by saying either, “He stuck ‘is fingers up at me, the cheeky git!” or, “He stuck ‘is finger up….’ etc etc etc.

    Then we know exactly which insult was used without having to demonstrate and risking accidentally insulting a passer by,

    Apostrophes are easy to use. I order mine in bulk from ebay and when I have finished each blog post, I grab a handful and fling them at the screen. That works well for me in today’s world where fewer and fewer people seem to give a shit about the nuts and bolts of writing.

    We’re gonna be sorry one day when a missing or extraneous ‘squiggle’ confuses the dullard in charge of the big red button!

    And re your Easter picture – I am not religious (unless kindness is a religion, in which case I am devout) but I am constantly amazed that the word ‘fun’ can be applied to holiday that remembers a person being nailed to a piece of wood and then shut in a cave with a boulder blocking the door. I know it all ended happily but I don’t get why we celebrate the birth, death and resurrection of a saviour by promoting diabetes and obesity.

    A very entertaining post! I need to catch up on the others.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Y’know, when you explain Easter that way, it does seem a bit strange. As I wrote that it was a somber (or did I say sober? I should listen more carefully) season, I wondered if I was right about that. Is it supposed to be a celebration because of the happy ending? I’ve never been sure.

      I like your method of apostrophizing. It’ll work at least as well as the careful way most people use them. I do remember telling a writing student once that I was going to hand him a few hundred commas that he should find a place for. I figured, what the hell, a few of them would land in useful spots.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting to hear that two fingers is seen as insulting by the British. Never had any thing like that in Australia. When I’m counting with my fingers, my instinct straight away goes to thumb first, index finger second, and so on. In the photo you showed, the bunny’s ears resembles two fingers stuck up somewhat.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I will now be overly conscientious when it comes to the two finger issue and attempt to remember the horror that may ensue. Does that mean that when I make bunny ears for my 18 month old granddaughter that her very distant British heritage may rear it’s head and feel insulted?
    As I am fairly new to your UK notes, a request…although perhaps you have already written eloquently about the topic, but “tube station” and the tube in general… I would love some insight into how that name came to be. Subway is so obviously American and creepy and dark, but “tube”? Who gets the credit for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The official answer is I don’t know, but the question’s interesting. If I can find anything out, I’ll write about it. And if I can’t, I may write about it anyway. I never do know in advance. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Oh, and the bunny ears? I think you’re safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So many things to think about here. I’m going to go with the first thought that jumped out at me: “How on earth was going from the US to England harder than going from Brooklyn to Minneapolis?” with respect to cultural expressions. If I hadn’t already written about starting my count with my thumb, I would be encouraged to do so by this post. People think I’m crazy, or at least wrong. At least I won’t offend anyone over there if I count to two. I was saddened to hear that grammar and punctuation are two different things (that I’m bad at).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is upsetting. You used to be bad at one thing and suddenly it’s two separate ones. Sorry to wreck your day like that.

      Actually, moving from New York to Minnesota may well have been the harder shift–and all the more so because I was nineteen and didn’t know what hit me. There’s a lot to be said for being a hundred and three: If you’re not dead, you’re likely to be more resilient.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fortunately for me, your post collided with the SoCS prompt and will serve as a basis for my response to that challenge. Don’t worry, I’ve explained that it’s merely a coincidence.

        I moved from Pittsburgh, which has its own dialect, to Queens and then to Seattle within an 18 month period. It was a shock.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Have you seen the movie ‘Inglorious Basterds’? If so, then that contains another example of the cultural differences in finger counting.

    My most recent brush with being reminding that I’m a not very assimilated immigrant was an attempt at locating and finding clotted cream. And the raised voice plea I made in one store might be the most British thing I have ever done.

    Missing possessive apostrophes make me wince but I don’t go so far as to correct them. I just stew over it in private.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen it. Any chance you’d be able to describe it?

      I used to have a recipe for faking clotted cream, but I think I tossed it when I moved to the land of the real stuff. It involved gelatin, but that’s all I remember. It turned out a fairly believable substitute.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a Quentin Tarantino movie about a squad of Jewish-American soldiers planning to assassinate Nazi leaders in occupied Paris while, simultaneously, the owner of a cinema plots revenge. To explain more would give away too much. I love (most) Tarantino movies for the rich dialogue, intense scenes, and OTT violence but it’s not for everyone.

        I have a source (for now) of real clotted cream that is imported from England. I was just annoyed that one of my other sources had quit stocking it and the manager had no idea what I was banging on about. I will have to resort to fake stuff if my other source dries up so thanks for suggesting that possibility.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. I think most of us are immigrants at some level, unless we happen to live medieval lives and never stray more than a couple of miles from our place of birth. For example, I’m a West Midland immigrant in the Capital City. I’ve now been living in London for more than twice as long as I did in Brum, but I’ve still got a rather modified Brummy accent, and I still use some West Midland turns of speech that are definitely not Cockney. But it’s a long time since the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex existed, so I don’t need to show my passport at a customs post half way up the M1 when I travel up to Brum to visit relatives. I suspect though that there are some Southern-based little England Brexiteers who would like that to become a reality. Whether I would stick one or two fingers up to such a proposal is another matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh dear: one finger or two? Life’s full of these difficult decisions, isn’t it?

      I’m with you on the internal migration thing. I haven’t lived in New York since I was nineteen, but I’m still essentially a New Yorker. A modified one, I admit, but still a New Yorker. The odd thing is that the New York I knew isn’t really there anymore. It’s a very different place these days.


  8. The version I heard about “flicking the v’s” as it was called at my school (as opposed to flipping the bird – please can some one tell me where that came from?) was that the French chopped off the two fingers required to draw back a long bow, if they captured English bowmen, and that is why we used to wave them at the French as an insult.
    I imagine it probably isn’t true, but as tall tales go I love it for some reason, it feels true as an English person, because, well you know how the English affectionaly like to abuse the French in an almost sibling manner. (We are fine fighting with them and invading each other, until someone else comes along and picks on them and then it’s all “Oy, Germany! Leave France alone!)
    To me at least, raised on tales of Robin Hood and The Bowmen of Cressy, it us seem scrappy and historically cool some how.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, that’s another thing about being an immigrant: I’d never have heard all those echoes that the gesture carries without you telling me. And even after being told, I can’t really hear them, I can only know they’re out there for someone else to hear.

      Now, did you say “in an almost sibling manner”? Seriously? I thought all that harassment was serious.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My personal opinion after teaching English in the 1960’s is that such changes in the written language are due to the increasing use of mobile devices, laziness, and the tendency to ignore any rules or authority and do what one pleases. As for the use of fingers? I have no opinion since I normally use them just to type, cook, and perform the necessary tasks of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I might have agreed with you about the changes in language if I hadn’t, at one point in my life, worked as a copy editor for a small hunting and fishing magazine that paid its writers badly and got pretty much what it paid for. The writers weren’t any of them kids and their use of grammar–and this was pre-mobile devices–was, if I’m going to be generous about this, creative. I came away convinced that every generation has had its share of people whose writing doesn’t follow the rule. I don’t necessarily mind that if it communicates, but most of it doesn’t. Turning those articles into something approaching human language sometimes involved a heavy dose of guesswork.

      I’m passionately on both sides of the grammar wars. I accept that languages changes over time and that no one can stop it. I admire the power and vividness of many of the new forms. And I care about getting it right. So I’m hopelessly ambivalent. I’ll mix the plural and the singular because it’s a nifty way to keep from assuming that any single subject whose sex isn’t known is male. On the other hand, I’ll worry that readers will think I’m doing it out of ignorance, not choice.


  10. As a serial immigrant, yes, it is impossible to eradicate old, ingrained habits.
    I have asked a friend to paint a placard showing a hand giving the finger to put up on my elevated water tank on the side facing the unpleasant North American neighbour who tried to cut off the local water supply…and failed.
    My first thought was the V sign….but as communication was of the essence was obliged to settle for one finger.
    The bras d’honneur would have been tempting too…but not simple enough in its graphics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to google bras d’honneur. As it turns out, I knew what it was (it’s used in New York pretty commonly–or at least it was when I lived there, pre- the worst of the gentrification) but I never had a name for it. So you’ve educated not just your neighbor (or let’s hope you have) but me as well. My thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I don’t understand why Waterstone’s had the apostrophe in the first place. Was a letter left out? Was the full title originally Waterstone’s Book Shop? It seems to me that it would be grammatically correct to not have the apostrophe…..but perhaps I am being overly pedantic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My best guess–and understand that I’m making this up–is that it was started by someone named Waterstone, so it was Waterstone’s bookstore. Now it’s just a bunch of wet rocks.


  12. As an immigrant, you’re in greater danger of giving offence when the finger signs are somewhat similar. Here fingers are used locally to give extreme offence with the little finger and index held up simultaneously (“cornuto!” ), but fortunately you’d never mistakenly order two coffees that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: And Then There Were Three | No Facilities

  14. Love this piece, Ellen. I laughed at your two fingers story and now I must be aware when I am in London next time. Much appreciated. I had read about the apostrophe fixer and applaud his (or her) effort!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I remember right, the article did use a pronoun, so we’ve narrowed it down to half the population of Bristol: He’s a he. Then we can eliminate everyone under the age of–oh, let’s randomly say 30, since he’s been active for a good long while. I’m not sure what percent of the population that leaves, but I’m sure the cops are closing in on him as we type.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it funny how passionate we can get about apostrophes? I mean, of all the real problems in this world–. But even so, they get to us.

      And I will watch my tone of gesture from here on.


  15. That was an interesting bit of information, Ellen. I did not know holding up your index and middle finger with palm facing toward you in the UK meant you were flipping people off. If I ever visit the British Isles, I will refrain from doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I am one-third of a family of three US ex-pats living in Sussex. I found your post via a tweet by my colleague, the inimitable proprietor of the Separated by a Common Language blog, Prof. Lynne Murphy, followed by a little poking around in your archives. I thought you might enjoy this true story. When I first moved to the U.K., early in 2000, I developed a working hypothesis that British people had a cultural inhibition against ordering two of anything, a kind of shared, population-level dyophobia. I’d take my (then) toddler son to a carnival and order two tickets for the rides, and could not help but notice how frosty people were. Or, I’d pop into the chemist for something and order two of them from behind the counter, and marvel at how their neck muscles tightened and their lips compressed. So, I put my hypothesis to the test, and, first, tried ordering three of something, a few times. No adverse reactions noted. Then, I thought that maybe they just have a general aversion to even numbers, so tried ordering four of various things (to the limits of my paltry research budget). Again, no discernible negative reactions. (Lest these ruminations seem ridiculous to you, recall that these people drive on the wrong side of the road; even now, there is little that I would put past the British, and I think a glance at the political headlines can only support this view. Q.E.D.) But, consistently, if tried to order two of something: everybody was all of a sudden standing around looking irritable. I was rather proud of my keen cultural insight, patiently coaching wife and son against discussing anything that came in twos, and sagely nodding my head in acknowledgement of my native informants’ occasional blasphemies, whenever theoretical or pedagogical discourse took a pairwise meander. When, a few months later, I finally learned the truth of the matter, I was disappointed, because I thought my theory was far more fetching than the (likely) apocryphal English longbowmen account.


    • Sorry to have ignored you. This ended up in spam, for no reason I can think of, sandwiched between the bible thumpers (they’re after me, and they’re all wordy) and the Viagra ads (they really don’t understand their market). So now that you’ve been rescued, I can tell you that I’d forgotten what the post you responded to was about and I read along thinking, boy, now there’s a cultural oddity I hadn’t noticed. I wonder why that hasn’t happened to me. Maybe I don’t ask for anything in twos. And so forth. It wasn’t till I got the the end of your account that it all came together. Of course. Hands in pockets from now on, my friend, because body language is horribly hard to change.

      Liked by 1 person

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