What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish

What do the wide-eyed innocents of the internet want to know about Britain? Or, to change that to a more accurate form of the same question, what do they ask that leads them here?

All sorts of strange stuff. Sometimes even sensible stuff, but we’ll skip that. It’s boring. As usual, the questions appear wearing the clothes they wandered in with, which usually means they don’t have question marks or capital letters and they sometimes use creative spelling. I’ve added italics so we can tell the questions from the answers.

what do mps wear

Clothes, and as a rule not particularly interesting ones. You want exotic, go see what Black Rod wears.

Irrelevant (and, um, soft focused) photo: a bee (yes, it is there) in a strange flower whose name, as usual, I don’t know.

why are there hedges on the side of the roads in england

This came in twice–same wording, different days–so someone, not having found the answer they wanted, came back to see if they couldn’t find the answer they wanted in the same place where they didn’t find it the day before. So it must be important. Let’s answer it:

It was hard to drive when the hedges were in the middle, so many and many a year ago the Department of Middle-of-the-Road Hedges became the Department of Roadside Hedgeways and all hedges were moved from the center to the side. The accident rate went down dramatically and everyone has been much happier. They didn’t live ever after–the would be asking too much–but they did live longer.

Wiseassery aside, however, England’s hedges are monuments to a lot of history and shelter to a lot of wildlife. I’ve been meaning to write about them for a long time but somehow never get around to it. I’ll write myself yet another note and see if I actually do it this time.

who has right of way on one lane country roads

This is complicated. Unless a sign gives priority to traffic from one direction, no one in particular. This leads to the occasional standoff, but they’re rare. Basically, the person who’s closer to a wide spot where two cars can pass should back up. Sometimes, though, one driver (generally a visitor) freezes, in which case the more competent driver should take charge of the situation and back up. Or the nicer one.

For the most part, drivers are impressively polite about it, working it out seamlessly and finishing with the driver who did’t back up giving a small wave to the driver who did, which the second driver returns. Occasionally, though, someone is clearly being a pig–entering a one-lane stretch when another car’s already there, say, or refusing to back down when the other car would have to back into traffic or would have to back a long distance or back around a miserable bend–and that’s where you get standoffs. I did once turn my car off while the other driver fumed. I know someone who claims to have poured himself a cup of tea and opened the paper.

For more extensive tales about the right of way on narrow roads, allow me to refer you that widely unknown expert, myself.

are all country roads in england one way

Yes. And they all lead north, ending eventually at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point in Scotland. When enough people–and of course their cars–collect there, a ferry takes them south, distributing them at various points along the way to Land’s End, on the southern tip of Cornwall. By which time the ice cream’s melted. It’s inconvenient as hell and makes grocery shopping a nightmare, but unless you’re going to walk, what can you do?

I just love being an expert.

is devon road very narrow?

Devon has–maybe you should be sitting down when you read this–more than one road. Some of them are narrow. Some of them are not, although your idea of what’s narrow depends on what you’re used to. If you’re American, they’re all narrow. If you’re from Cornwall, they range from normal to wide.

And they all go north.

what are chocolate chip cookies called in England

They’re called chocolate chip cookies.

Yes, it is confusing.

the secret of lawyers wear white wigs

It’s hard enough to keep a wig secret when you’re sporting one that tries to look like your own hair, but it’s impossible when it’s as unlikely looking as the rugs British lawyers slam on their heads. If any of you happen to run a spy network, please, save your time and money That is not their real hair. Everyone knows it and you can’t blackmail them about it. Go ferret out some more useful secret.

The world–or at least the online world–is full of people who are obsessed by British lawyers’ wigs. They could, I’m sure, be doing worse things with their time, but it does strike me as strange. A quick sampling of recent wig questions brings us history of ill fitting wigs, what are english trial wig, and british lawyers build case against wigs. 

From the world of wigs, let’s drop briefly into the inscrutable:

circle the sound that you here .wants to meaning

I have no idea what that means or how it led here. I only reproduce it here because I didn’t want to be left alone with it.

manners in uk yes sir

Yes, sir, the British do have manners. Of course, everyone has manners, it’s just that they differ from place to place and culture to culture, and my manners may look to you like no manners at all.

People from cultures that are (or once were) dominant have a habit of thinking their manners are manners and everyone else’s are an absence of manners. And often enough, other people believe them. So any number of people think the British know how to do manners and could teach us barbarians a thing or six.

What the question probably means by “the British” is the British upper class, although I can’t swear to that. What I can swear to is that Britain isn’t one uniform culture. The manners that work in one class look either ignorant or silly if you transplant them. Not that people are judgmental about these things…

If the question is whether people in Britain say, “Yes, sir,” then (in my experience) no. Except on cop shows, and even there the “sir” tends to drag in a beat or two after the “yes” to prove its reluctance.

My answer may be colored by the fact that not many people call me “sir,” except over the phone from time to time, since my voice is low. I’ve been called “madam” once in a while when I’m buying something, although to my ear it often takes on a hostile tone. I’ve worked with the public. I understand how it can make people hostile, although my temper never took that particular channel. But “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am”? I can’t remember hearing either.

I’m grateful for that.

tell me about village life

People are born. They die. In between, they live. And that in-between period can be interesting. Not to mention messy.

I don’t know about all villages, but where I live most of the young people move away. Some want to live in a city, with all its opportunities. Others would love to stay but can’t. There aren’t many jobs around here and what jobs there are don’t pay well. If that isn’t enough of a problem, housing’s insanely expensive. Some do manage, but the village is aging.

How is village life different than city life? There are fewer people (to state the obvious), so we tend to know each other, or at least know of each other. In cities, you hear short stories about other people’s lives. Here, you get the entire novel, sometimes in multi-generational form. There are no secrets, although there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

why do americans have mailboxes

To get their mail. Also to mail their mail. Same word. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone get mixed up about which one does what.

A few related questions also came in:

a row of letterboxes in the hamptons; a row of letterboxes in uk

If “the Hamptons” refers to the overpriced cluster of towns on Long Island, then you won’t find a row of letterboxes, although you might find a row of mailboxes. The two countries are still trying to negotiate a treaty that would allow them to call the things by the same name. This has been going on since the U.S. declared independence.

If you think Brexit’s difficult…

do amerians not have post boxes

No, Amerians do not have post boxes. Or maybe that’s yes, Amerians do not have post boxes. Either way, see above. They have to make do with mailboxes. It’s shocking, I  know. Amerians do, however have a C in the middle of the word that describes their nationality.

But this gets us into another difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: In British, “Do Americans not have” is a perfectly normal way to phrase that question. In American, it wouldn’t be. We’d be more likely to say, “Don’t Americans have.”

how do american mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and it sits there, out of human sight. It communes with all the other letters people have dropped in. This is good, because otherwise it might worry about the wicked witch who lives in a gingerbread house in the forest. The someone comes and picks it up, along with all its new friends, and takes them to a sorting center, where they get (yes, this will surprise you) sorted. Then–but we’ve gone past the limits of the question, which was about the box itself.

Unless of course the question’s about the mailboxes people put outside their house (or that landlords put in apartment buildings) for incoming mail. The letter carrier drops the letter in and it sits there till someone takes it out.

It truly is an amazing system.

swearing in public uk magna carta

The Magna Carta was an agreement that King John and his barons signed in 1215. Neither side honored its commitments and in case that wasn’t enough it ended up being nullified by the Pope. Great moments in diplomacy. At least they didn’t have to agree about what to call that thing that holds letters. The mail (or post) hadn’t been invented yet.

As far as I can tell, the Magna Carta wasn’t sworn, just signed. It re-entered British political life after King J’s death and is now part of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

What’s an unwritten constitution? Good question, and I keep asking it myself. You gather up every element of precedent, every major political agreement, every major court decision, and the sweepings from every last one of London’s hair salons, and you interpret them for the present day.

Good luck.

Is there much public swearing in Britain? That depends very much on what you count as swear words. And who you hang out with. By anyone’s reckoning, I do enough swearing that I don’t always much notice how much other people are contributing. Good manners might tell me to leave more room for them instead of monopolizing it. I’ll give it some thought.

I have never yet heard anyone swear about the Magna Carta. It’s way in the background of everyday life.

In a brief, sensible aside, let me add that any public oath a person has to take in Britain allows them to either swear, which is a religious form of saying you’ll tell the truth, or affirm, which is a non-religious form. I appreciate the space made for a non-religious person not to have to be a hypocrite in order to say they’re telling the truth.

swear words uk vs us

Oh, surely you don’t want two entire lists, do you? Sex organs tend to go by different slang names in the two countries, which is why the American movie title Free Willy cracked up the British. Bloody isn’t a swear word in the U.S., it’s a description

This is very much off the top of my head and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but the important thing is that you can insult someone from one country using the other country’s swear words and pretty much count on being understood. And if the detail gets lost, the tone of voice will carry it.


In an effort to add this post in my stack of upcoming posts, I hit Publish weeks ago, before I’d changed the date and ended up sending it out too early, at which point I did my best to disappear it. Apologies to anyone who wasted internet time chasing it after it disappeared. I’d apologize for looking like a lunatic but I’m not sure that’s apology material. And I’d reassure you that I’m not, but since I haven’t sworn or affirmed it, I might not be telling the truth.

38 thoughts on “What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish

  1. Hmmmm Chocolate Chip Cookies you say? Well, that explains why I was getting funny looks calling them Spotty Bernards… You’d think I’d have known!

    I swear about the Magna Carta all the time!! Oh, no, hang on, its not the Magna Carta, its the crazy drivers all heading north on the tiny roads!!


    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is hilarious! As a British “townie” married to a Cornishman, I sympathise with all of the stupid questions about roads! In the same summer that I passed my driving test, my brother-in-law convinced me to use a “short cut” and I found myself stuck – uphill- on a single lane country road, facing a double decker bus, with an Audi TT close behind me! There was a tiny passing place just ahead so, naturally, I applied the breaks, undid my seatbelt, climbed into the back and told the native to get us out of it! 6 years ago now, but I still haven’t driven down there since! Thank goodness all roads lead to Scotland, hey…. ;) x

    Liked by 1 person

    • They do, but I’ve seen a narrow road or two in Scotland.

      I was once part of a four-car traffic jam on a one-lane road. Two were headed one way and two the other, and it must’ve been half a mile to the nearest wide spot. One car and I backed up, the other two drove forward, and well before we reached a spot where we could pull over I was seeing double and had to close one eye. I couldn’t help picturing us all as a train that someone had stuck together badly.


  3. I’m betting that question about how do US mailboxes work was about those rural boxes with the little flag. Now, it’s been years — no, decades — since I saw one of these, but as I recall, if someone had a letter they wanted to mail, they put it in the box and flipped up the little flag. The mail person (who probably was male back then) would see the flag and stop at that box to pick up the outgoing letter, even if they didn’t have any mail to deliver. Or maybe I have it all wrong, and the little flag told the mailbox owner “You got mail.” Complicated, isn’t it? (And may be obsolete, for all I know. Last time I lived somewhere rural here in Canada, we had big green communal rural mail boxes, not the individual ones on posts next to each driveway).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Until I moved to Cornwall, I always lived in a city, so I’m a stranger to rural mailboxes. I always thought the letter carrier put the flag up if he or she left something in it, but your explanation makes more sense. As does your reading of the question.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I lived in Scotland, I never quite got used to seeing the term ‘cock-up’ in the daily newspapers. It appeared often and was almost always in reference to something the government was attempting to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That got me interested enough to google it and add “word origin.” According to Wiktionary (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cock_up), which may or may not be accurate, “The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1948 Dictionary of Forces’ Slang. The OED suggests that it derives ultimately from the noun cock, but gives no further detail. The nature of the earliest citation suggests that this expression entered the wider language from military slang, making etymologies from typesetting or archery (see below) seem unlikely.

      “The term is sometimes attributed to the days of manual typesetting, when a letter that had become wedged slightly higher than the other letters on the line was said to be “cocked up”.

      “Another claim relates to medieval archery. One of the three feathers on an arrow is a cock’s feather. If the arrow was incorrectly placed on the bow for drawing and release, the arrow would go off course because of the cock’s feather being up and therefore the arrow positioned wrongly on the bow. This was then known as a ‘cock up’.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was the only American studying in my specific teaching program at University of Edinburgh so I deferred to the Scots on matters of local language translation. Their connotation of cock-up seems to match the ‘military slang’ origin of the term. IMHO, British English is much more colourful than the sanitized and efficient version we were taught as Yanks. Thanks for another interesting post!

        Liked by 1 person

        • My pleasure, but I have to disagree about sanitized American English. I think when it’s your native language, you stop hearing it to some extent. My partner’s from Texas, and they’re nothing if not, um, florid in their use of language. The phrase that comes to mind is, “He’s so dumb he’d piss in his own boots.” Maybe–just maybe–creativity’s been pushed to the margins. Black English and southern white English come to mind, but there are also (just for the sake of arguing with myself) mainstream phrases like FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition) and GOMER (get outta my emergency room) that have joined the conversation relatively recently.

          I regularly need people to translate Britishisms for me, even after eleven years.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m one of the weird Brits fascinated by American mailboxes (the kind that people have outside their homes) though I can assure you I wasn’t the one (or a one) who searched for info about them. I just can’t imagine having to trudge out to one to pick out the post (mail) when there’s a nice warm (or cool, depending on the weather) alternative known as a letterbox in a front door. Don’t any American houses have those?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The American mailbox, as you know it, is strictly rural or far-suburban. In cities, we use a variety of other approaches: small tin boxes fixed to the outside of the house, rows of mailboxes in the wall in apartment buildings (in bigger buildings, each one opens with a key), rows of locked metal boxes for some clustered suburban townhouses (outside, in some central spot). In Minnesota, no one’s crazy enough to cut a hole in the front door because it lets in the cold, no matter how well you try to insulate it, although I’ve seen mail slot cut in porch doors a few times. Porches aren’t heated but this kind, at least, is enclosed, so you don’t lose any heat that way. In warmer states, they probably do have mail slots in some doors, but I couldn’t swear to that.

      Liked by 1 person

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