Things that actually happen in Britain

Cold off the British press: Notes from the U.K. proudly presents the following mostly outdated news stories.

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

The British Museum misplaced a diamond ring worth £750,000. It’s not lost, it’s just—oh, you know how this works. Someone put it in a safe place. It hasn’t been seen since. That happens to me all the time, although not usually with £750,000 diamond rings.

In fact, that’s why I don’t buy £750,000 diamond rings. I know what’ll happen to them.

How do we know this happened? Somebody submitted a Freedom of Information request to—I guess—the major British museums, asking what they’ve misplaced, and then counted up the responses. Some 6,000 items became unaccounted for over the past I’m not sure how long, which makes the report of questionable value but hey, here at Notes we don’t really care. And we aren’t really a we. It’s just me here, typing away.

The 6,00 items include a rare piece of quartz, an old washing machine, a tin of talcum powder, and an important black tie.

How important can a black tie be? I wouldn’t know. I suspect you’d have to have owned one before you can make an estimate. That’s why I never have. I’d put it in a safe place with that damned diamond ring and that’d be the end of them both.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: This is a flower. In case you weren’t sure.



The arts are flourishing

The winner of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize gets £25,000, but the winner of the Turnip Prize gets a turnip mounted on a nail. It’s awarded to the entrant who creates rubbish art “using the least amount of effort possible.” The contest is now in its eighteenth year and is still being run from a Somerset pub.

All the best contests are run from pubs. Or else they start or end in one.

The 2017 contest had over 100 entries but the organizers said proudly that the standard was “still crap.”

Last year’s winner said the contest showed that  “if you set your sights on the gutter and refuse to work hard your dreams really can come true.”

A past entry included a dark pole titled “Pole Dark.” I don’t think it won, which just goes to show you, although I’m not sure what it goes to show you.

I am forever indebted to my friend Deb for calling this contest to my attention.

Water companies use witchcraft

Britain’s a wet country, but every so often people have to search for water anyway. Historically, it was so they could dig wells, but these days it’s also so water companies can find leaks and all sorts of people can locate pipes before they run a digger into them.

Recently, water companies—not all of them, but most—were caught using dowsers, also called water witches, and there’s a predictable flap about it.

Dowsing’s an ancient way of looking for water (or anything else that’s invisible). Traditionally, dowsers used a forked stick. These days, they use a couple of bent wires or metal rods or clothes hangers or tent pegs or—well, you get the idea. When the dowser walks above the hidden water, the wires move toward each other.

Does it work? I’ve never tried. I’m fresh out of tent pegs or I’d go looking for our water pipes. What’s worse, most of our hangers are plastic. Wire hangers are hard to find around here. It’s probably a religious issue because it’s a mystery to me.

What I can tell you is that science blogger Sally Le Page went public about a water company sending a dowser to her parents’ house to locate pipes. Before you could say “superstitious nonsense,” it was in the news. Experts have weighed in to say that it’s not a technique, it’s witchcraft—not in the sense of it being evil but unscientific and silly.

Before this all disappeared from the news, which it did pretty quickly, I listened to a sober BBC journalist interviewing an expert. The journalist happened to have tried water witching and his experience was that it worked—the tent pegs moved strongly toward each other just as he passed over (if I remember correctly) an underground pipe.

The expert talked about false positives. The journalist talked about the feeling of the rods moving in his hands. The journalist was the more convincing speaker.

The regulator (which has no power in this) urged water companies to consider whether dowsing is cost effective, then stuck its fingers in its ears and turned the other way, humming “There’ll always be an England.” The company Le Page challenged said, “We’ve found some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.”

“Just as effective than the new ones”? If they’d like to hire a copy editor, I’m retired but can be called in for small emergencies. For a fee.

I don’t need dowsing rods to tell you that since the flap’s already died down everyone will have gone back to business as usual.

A woman becomes Black Rod

For the first time in British history, a woman’s been appointed as Black Rod.

As what?

Black Rod, who is not to be confused with a dowsing rod. Black Rod’s a person and plays a ceremonial role in the little playlet put on when the queen (or king, when there happens to be one) speaks at the opening of Parliament. Black Rod is sent from the House of Lords to summon the House of Commons. The Commons slams the door in his—or now her—face until he (now she) knocks three times with his (now her) staff, at which point someone opens the door and the MPs troupe out behind him—or now her—like overfed ducklings.

Enough of that. I’m tired of juggling pronouns.

Black Rod also does other stuff, some of which may be perfectly sensible, and dresses in, um, a distinctive get-up.

It’s heartening to know that in this glorious new age we live in women can have jobs that are just as silly as men’s. This isn’t what I hoped feminism would bring us when I was a young hell-raiser, but as Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”

Berra is also supposed to have said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” which is demonstrated by the first quote appearing on the internet in several forms, so I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room. The first quote was originally said, in some form or other, by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who said at least half the things he said.


You probably already know that the next Doctor Who is also a woman.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if someone’s appointed as Black Rod or simply appointed Black Rod, with no as. Maybe you reword the sentence to avoid the issue. But I’m not getting paid to worry about that stuff anymore.

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

Every day, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs goes through 1,400 disposable cups in its restaurants and cafes, which are run by private companies under contract to the department. So it’s good to know everyone’s taking the department’s mission seriously.

The House of Commons went through 657,000 disposable cups last year, but they did their bit by buying 500 reusable cups and selling four of them in the course of three years, so yeah, nothing’s going to waste there.

Based on a survey of one, incompetence may have a genetic component

Britain has a foreign secretary—Boris Johnson—who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth. Or in the case of a woman imprisoned in Iran, who has both British and Iranian citizenship, for putting his foot very dangerously in other people’s mouths. (I wrote this in mid-December and may not get a chance to update it; she was still in prison at that point; it would be nice to think that by she’ll have been released by the time this appears but I’m not putting any money on it.)

Johnson not only said the woman was in Iran teaching journalism, which helped Iran justify her arrest (both she and her family say she was visiting her parents, and she brought her toddler daughter with her, so that seems credible), Johnson refused to retract the statement for a long time, offering a kind of non-apology instead.

I can’t explain Johnson’s political survival, but a recent article about his father reported that Johnson-the-father ran for Parliament in 2005 with election literature that not only misspelled the area he was running in, it used a slogan I love: “More talk, less action.”

He lost.

Still, it’s refreshing, in a stupid kind of way. If we want truth in political advertising. there it is.

Unlike his son, he knows how to back down. He’s quoted as admitting that when he was a spy (sorry—I’m not sure what office he was spying for or who he was spying on) his “incompetence may have cost people their lives.” Which, again, is kind of refreshing in its openness, although it doesn’t bring anyone back from the grave.

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

Guardian letter writers spilled a fair bit of ink arguing about how to pronounce latte, as in caffe latte, as in an expensive coffee drink.

There are two problems involved here: 1. how to pronounce the word to begin with, and 2. how to communicate the pronunciation in print to an English speaker.

And you thought it was just coffee. Silly you. These things are complicated.

I know that: 1. the pronunciation doesn’t really matter as long as people understand you, and 2. the problem could be solved by going online, de-muting the speakers you (or was that me, or possibly I?) turned off to shut up those annoying ads, and then hoping that whoever you’re listening to got it right, which is far from guaranteed. But isn’t it more fun to do it the hard way?

The first way to tell people how to pronounce something is to use specialists’ marks. Caffe latte comes out as kæfeɪ ˈlɑːteɪ. I’m sure the system’s foolproof, but this fool never did learn how to turn the marks into pronunciation. So let’s try method two, which is to rhyme the word or phrase with something else. That’s the method the letter writers used.

The first said latte rhymed with pate, not par-tay.

Par-tay? Is that when you invite a bunch of people over and offer them food and something to drink? Where I come from, that’s a party. There’s no A involved, and no hyphen.

So do I know how to pronounce par-tay? No. It could be par-TAY of PAR-tay. And given that large parts of Britain treat the R as a very shy sound that disappears in company–well, that adds another complication.

The next day someone wrote in to say that in the north they’ve always rhymed latte and pate, reminding us all that accents here change from region to region, making the whole rhyming thing a complete crapshoot.

The day after that, someone said the emphasis belongs on the first syllable anyway, so it should rhyme with satay, not pate. Great, but I thought satay was pronounced sat-AY, emphasis on the last syllable, making it rhyme with the French pronunciation of pate, which is where we came in.

Is this complicated enough for you yet? It not, let me confuse it further. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I think I’ve heard some British people put the accent on the first syllable of pate and others put it on the second, meaning that if you’re using that as your rhyming word, you’re in trouble.

You see the problem here. English is a slippery language.

Take the word skeletal. You’re not going to rhyme anything with unless you’re an expert, but the standard British pronunciation is skell-EE-tl. The American pronunciation is SKELL-uh-tl. If you find a word that rhymes with either version, the comment section is waiting eagerly.

The third way to communicate pronunciation in print is to do what I did with satay: break the word into syllables, capitalize the one that gets the emphasis, and figure out a phonetic spelling for each syllable. It works, but only up to a point. When I had to do it for a series of kids’ books I was working on, I ran into trouble with a few sounds. Some  of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s, but the one that really sank me was the sound at the end of the word garage–unless, of course, you use one of the British pronunciations, which is GARE-idge. It’s a kind of soft G, but–.

Oh, let’s not get into it. We’ll sink. No spelling was foolproof and there’s a whole generation of kids who grew up mispronouncing the vocabulary words they learned from me.

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

Google Maps finds out why crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a good idea

Okay, this story isn’t limited to Britain, but we all know I cheat: Everton football fans went onto Google Maps and labeled a rival team’s stadium “gobshites.”

What’s a gobshite? Gob’s a mouth. Shite is shit. Put them together and you get a stupid or incompetent person, or so the internet tells me. It also swears that shite in Norwegian is shite and that gobshite in Spanish is pendejo, which according to the Oxford Dictionaries literally means pubic hair.

Don’t you learn interesting things here? I’ve wondered about the literal meaning of pendejo for years. Seriously. I have. Why didn’t I look it up? I did, I just didn’t think of typing in “word origin pendejo” until now.

Are you impressed with my intellectual curiosity? I sure as hell am.

In 2015, Lord Google had to close his crowdsourced mapmaking tool when someone added a robot peeing on an Apple logo to a part of Pakistan. In that same year, British sports fans played other shit-related online jokes. It must be a British thing. Sports fans here are a distinctive breed.

In an unstated year, someone labeled the White House entrance hall Edward’s Snow Den.

Google is “understood to be…looking into” the most recent issue. In the meantime, if you want to sneak Boaty McBoatface onto a map, you might still be able to.

37 thoughts on “Things that actually happen in Britain

  1. I’m always amazed at how much fun learning can be.

    I can solve the mystery of the ring – check the junk drawer in the kitchen. If it’s not there, check again in 10 minutes. If it’s still not there, have your spouse check – ah, there it is.

    Also, the guy who says par-TAY is either already drunk or becomes even more stupid when drunk.

    Since ‘Gelatin’ almost rhymes with ‘Skeleton” I thought ‘gelital’ might be a good choice. Spellcheck says that’s not a word and desperately wants to turn it in to ‘genital’ and I didn’t want to go there. So, however you chose to pronounce it, you’re on your own to find a word that rhymes.

    Thanks for a year full of Friday fun. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 2 people

    • 1, because it came second but is most important: Watch your typing if “gelital” becomes a word. 2. I’ll take your advice to heart about looking for that lost ring. What a relief that now I can buy one. Or three.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Boaty McBoatface. Boaty McBoatface.
    Boaty McBoatface. Boaty McBoatface.
    Boaty McBoatface. Boaty McBoatface…can’t help myself. Boaty McBoatface…can’t get enough…like Dark Choccy McVitie’s Digestives. More please. Time for tea? Can Boaty McBoatface come? I’ll bring the McVitie’s. Boaty Boaty Boaty…(it’s been a gobshite week…humor me…) Happy New Year to you, you and you. And Boaty. I’m done.


    • Okay, I’m going to confess: I’ve been traveling. I set this up weeks ago to post while I was away. I haven’t a clue anymore what I actually said and I’m working my way through 500 hundred emails (most of them deletable crap), so I don’t have the time or sanity to go back and remind myself. So beetle? Scuttle? Sure, why not? What were we talking about, though? (I’m not usually quite this bad.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Really? Usually I’m much much WORSE!…

        The words in question were admittedly feeble attempts to rhyme with “skeletal” and “skeletal”, respectively.

        Hey, there’s something I’ve always wanted to know — and I just happen to be online right now with one of the few people whose opinion I’d give a — um, I’d trust on the subject: Should the comma have gone before instead of after the close quotation marks in that last sentence?

        It’s okay. You don’t have to answer. I know I’m obsessive.

        Before I let you get back to your other 499 emails, though, let me say it’s no surprise there are so many — I start smiling while I’m still opening your posts, before I’ve even read the first word! You’re good for us :)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for saying that.

          Okay, the comma. It depends what country you’re in–or whose rules you want to follow. In the US., it’s inside the quotation marks. In Britain–and I’m not all that good with their rules, so take this with a grain of salt–it seems to go inside [late edit: that was supposed to be “outside,” not “inside,” although I sometimes see it inside, hence the confusion; also I was reading 500 emails and not entirely in my right mind]. Which I find very annoying, but no one seems to care how I feel about it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s quite a fancy getup for the Black Rod. Would have liked to see it on a female, but couldn’t seem to find the image. I actually consider pronunciation a lot of fun, as in mispronouncing or misplacing emphasis (as in emph-ASS-is). It gets to be a problem at my age though when my memory can’t come up with the “correct” usage. Soon I may be too senile to care. :D

    Liked by 1 person

  4. On the caffèlatte problem. Since what they sell in the uk ( and most of the us I visited) it’s nowhere near the real thing, I think they can pronounce it the way they want. Actually, saying things like lattay or lah-tteh has the purpouse of clearing out the doubt whether you are going to get a good caffèlatte or not. It’s like pizzah. Or salami. Or pepperoni. You hear the sound and you know what you’re gonna get ( LOL ). I really enjoy reading your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hhahha, Edward’s Snow Den is brilliant. As is the pronunciation thing. My opinion is that one should neither drink nor spell it. And I’m all full of myself now because I had English phonetics at the university and learned all those wiggly things to describe sounds.

    Not only that, I also learned seven (I think) melodies of English sentences. We used a conversation for that. Of course, it would be useful only if I recorded it, but I’m sure you can imagine the ups and downs and the valleys and the peaks:

    “- Did you see Othello on television last night?
    – The opera, you mean. I didn’t. I was out.
    – I saw it and quite enjoyed it.
    – Did you? I thought you didn’t approve of television.
    – I don’t as a regular thing, but I happened to be round at my sister’s and she wanted to see it. So I watched it too.” etc.

    I especially love the long nnnnn in “happened”.

    As for garage, don’t we Slovenians have a letter just for that. It is Ž and it describes exactly what you are missing. You’re welcome. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know any Slovenian, but I know just enough Russian to be a menace and as I result fall back on “zh” (the English transliteration of the Russian letter I’d have to go searching through the depths of WordPress or Word to find, although I’m sure it’s there somewhere). It’s a perfect fit but, unfortunately, no one who doesn’t know the English transliteration of Russian knows what the hell I’m on about.

      The melodies of English sentences? I never thought of the sound patterns of English that way. As a native speaker, I guess, I never had to, but it’s fascinating. I do remember someone on a radio program once saying that every accent is a song, and I’m sure the two ideas are related.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I have indeed learned a great deal and laughed a lot. However, I’m going to make you be wary of me forever, if not hate me, when I tell you it should not be ‘Some of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s’ but ‘Some of them, if I remember right, involved As and Os’. I have a serious aversion to erroneous apostrophes in plurals. (Omg, omg, omg that Vernon woman is back!)

    Liked by 1 person

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