What people really want to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The search engines have been kind lately, washing all manner of collector’s items onto my shores. So let’s see what people want to know about Britain.

But first, for the sake of clarity: It’s in the nature of search engines to wash people to places they’ll never visit again, so I trust I’m not insulting anyone by being just a touch a wise-ass about their question. If I am, take heart from knowing that at this very minute someone somewhere else is making fun of the questions I left behind.


Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds. Also, incidentally, a repeat, since I forgot to toss in a photo until the last minute. But who’ll notice?

The endless search for knowledge about Britain

why is two fingers an insult in britain

Why is anything an insult? It all has to do with intent, and with the conviction behind the words or gesture. If you can pull together enough toxin, you can insult someone by calling them a fish fry, but it’ll be more powerful if the weight of social agreement says that fish fry is an  insult, or that you’re part of a category of people who can be freely insulted. We’re social creatures, and it makes us vulnerable to hostility from our fellow humans. Even if we don’t share the assumptions their insults are based on, they get to us.

Take the word fat. These days it’s an insult, but only because of the culture’s belief that thin in good. At different times and in assorted cultures, being fat was good. It was healthy, it was sexy, it meant you were rich, or at least solvent. Being skinny? That was the insult. 

As for the two-finger insult, it’s not clear why it’s an insult. The generally accepted explanation is generally accepted to be bullshit. It’s an insult because it’s an insult. And because it’s understood as one.  

sticking two fingers up as a greeting in different cultures

As a general rule, if you’re wandering around a culture you don’t understand, don’t try out a bunch of random hand signals to see if one of them turns out to be a greeting. I can’t prove this, but (humans being what we are) I’m pretty sure the world contains a lot more insulting hand signals than friendly ones. That would mean that, the odds are against your coming up with anything friendly.

british understatement

I keep getting these questions, and in the midst of the Brexit uproar it finally hit me: British understatement? How did the country ever get a reputation for that? MPs in the House of Commons bray and roar at each other and call it debate. The Brexit mayhem has included a prime minister accusing the opposition of surrender at a time when the country isn’t at war. The word betrayal is flying around often enough to pierce the serenest citizenly moment. So understatement? What would happen in public life if the country’s reputation rested on over-reaction? 

Which brings us to the next question.

brexit forgetting evrything you blieved in

Yes, a lot of people have done that.

And that takes us to the next question.

why is britain so great

Well, it invented the scone. And the shortbread, thank you very much. Not to mention the two-finger insult, Brexit, and understatement. If I’d done any of those things–.

No, if I’d done the first two things, believe me, I’d brag about it. In an understated sort of way, and since I’m American no one would expect that.

It’s also managed to con a lot of people into thinking that a geographical description is a statement about its general wonderfulness. 


Well, of course this question found its way to me. I attract strange questions. It’s part of my understated charm.

I have a vague memory of writing about British street names at one point, and Cuntegrope Alley, or something along those lines, came into the discussion. Along with an Isis street, alley, or place, named after a nearby river and causing no end of trouble for the residents in these twitchy days.

was the uk always called the uk

No. Once upon a time, it wasn’t called anything. No one who used language lived here–or anywhere else. Then people came. We’ll never know what they called it, but the place wasn’t united and it wasn’t a kingdom, and English hadn’t been invented, so almost surely something else. Besides, the area we’re talking about had no reason to think of itself as a single country.

After a while other people came and called it other things. We’ll speed this up because I’m getting bored. The place has been called a lot of things, and oddly enough it still is, with varying degrees of formality: Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom. Check back with us in a decade or two and we’ll let you know if we’re still using the word united.

enclosure movement 16th century

Holy shit. This is a sensible question. It’s more than a little frightening to find myself passing as a source for genuine information. I do everything I can to keep this mess accurate–really, I do–but I’m no historian, and posting something weekly means my research is necessarily shallow, even when it’s wide. Cross your fingers for me, folks. Or wish me luck. Or wish the rest of the world luck. I do my best. Let’s hope it works.

isuk road are nartow

Probable translation: Is UK road are narrow. 

No. In most places, they’re wide enough for two conjugations of the same verb to pass each other with barely a scrape.

can i drive a ninefoot wide vehicle on british roads?

That’ll depend in part on how well you drive.And on where you plan to find a 9’-wide vehicle. A Hummer (the widest thing I could find in a short and uninteresting search, although I’ve never seen one in Britain) is roughly seven feet wide. If we jump out of the car category–you did say “vehicle,” not “car”–your standard semi (called an articulated lorry here) is 8’ 4” wide, plus a few decimal points. I’ve seen them squeeze through amazingly tight slots, and one of them did it backwards. 

On the other hand, periodically one or another of them gets stuck between two houses that are less than 8’ 4” wide. And shows up in the papers.

If you’re holding out for the full 9’, though, you could load a prefab houses on the trailer. They’re wide enough to travel with escorts carrying  Wide Load signs. 

Can we assume you have a license to drive one of these things?

photo of wooden floor in tudor times

Taken with an actual Tudor camera, please. Post in the comments section. Reward offered.

photos of british female wigs

Wigs are not, strictly speaking, either male or female. They reproduce asexually.

what are brussel sprouts called in britain

Brussels sprouts. The real question is what they’re called in Brussels.


Questions using the U.S. as a reference point

american in britain “legally obliged” brought weather with you talk about weather

Americans are not legally obliged to bring their own weather to Britain. Even in its most nationalist and mean-spirited phases, the country invites visitors and immigrants alike to share in whatever weather the country has going–all the more so because the British generally figure that anything the weather offers will be terrible. So why not share?

Neither are the British legally obliged to say anything about Americans having brought the weather with them, although the occasional Briton may fall back on that old joke because she or he can’t think of anything else to say. 

I have a hunch–and I can’t support this with anything like data–that the joke about bringing the weather with you is usually made by men. As always, I’d love to know if I’m completely wrong about that.

The British are also not legally obliged to talk about the weather. That would be like passing a law requiring everyone to respect gravity. 

Visiting Americans are welcome to talk about the weather, but they’re not legally obliged to either.

As always, I hope I’ve been able to clarify things. I do think it’s good when we learn about each other’s cultures.

alcohol content us vs uk

Are we talking about the alcohol content of the people? At what time of day? Do we exclude children under the age of five? Or is that the alcohol content of the countries themselves? The first question’s tough, but I don’t know how to even approach the second one. The land–the rock and soil and so forth–I think we can safely exclude. The water–or at least the sewage–may show some second-hand alcohol content. I’m not sure what’s left once the body processes it. I know it shows traces of cocaine, estrogen, antibiotics, and other fun stuff. 

Sorry. I don’t think I’m the right person to answer this.

what do brits really think of americans?

Really, really think of Americans? You mean, when they’re not being understated or hopelessly polite? I could gather up a random patchwork of things people have told me and pretend they stand for what one entire country thinks of another one, but the real question is why you care. I can’t help wondering if this is a particularly American form of paranoia –a sense that the world beyond the borders is hostile territory. 

Does any other group of people worry as much about what other nationalities think of them as Americans do? If anyone has any experience with this, I’d love to hear from you. 

what brits like about americans

  1. Our accents.
  2. The chance to make fun of our accents. In the kindest possible way.
  3. Our brownies.


Questions about the U.S.

why does america have saloon doors on toilets

Because there’s no feeling like swaggering out of the toilet cubicle with your jeans newly re-buttoned and your hands on your six-guns, ready to shoot everyone washing their hands at the sinks. 

Yeah, I watched too many westerns as a kid. The person asking the question did too. May parents warned me.

do canadians talk louder thena americans


how do us mailboxes work

They’re magical. You drop your letter in. Someone who works for the post office comes along and takes it out, along with all its newfound friends and acquaintances, and delivers it to the post office, where someone asks where it wants to go and sends it on its way.. 

What an amazing system.



what do brits think.of pulisic / what nationality is gulibion

I thought these were both typos, but it turns out they’re questions about sports figures. I have a severe sports allergy and have no idea how either question got here. 

116 thoughts on “What people really want to know about Britain, part 19-ish

    • Well, not exactly. The widest thing I could find was a big honkin’ trailer–the interchangeable kind hauled by a truck–and that wasn’t a full 9 feet wide. But the roads are wider. I have no idea how the number got inside the questioner’s head.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s possibly an urban myth, but holding up two fingers (as an insult) dates back to the 100 years war between England and France. The longbow was such an effective weapon that if the French captured an English archer, they would amputate his index and middle fingers, to prevent him from using a bow. Displaying these two fingers was a way of taunting the French.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Definitely urban myth, but a widespread one. There is, apparently, no evidence that the gesture was used back then. And honestly, I can’t think why they’d bother doing that instead of just killing them–which I assume is what they did with anyone who wasn’t worth ransoming (although I don’t know that). It’s a lot more work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I learned the word “bullshit” as an eight-year-old, I wanted to share it everywhere, of course! I knew it was vaguely “naughty”, so it gained in magic, so much so that I wanted to write it on something to examine it more closely. Soooo, I wrote “bs” on a fence, knowing that a fuller version would be a bit harder for me at that age. My older sister observed this naughtiness and reported me to the authorities (Mom and Dad). When they put me through the third degree, I confessed totally: “It means boy scout!” Whew! I got away with it!

    As always, an interesting exploration all those things we want to know about but don’t know who to ask. LOL!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. So is the person in Brussels really small ? Or is the Brussel really big ? Or have they been minced and evenly divided or nearly so amongst all of the Brussels ? Or have I drifted back to the alcohol content question without really noticing it yet. Oh and we won’t even get into the question of sending the big baby back home in a pout. You know it was bad enough when he left in a happy mood… hmmm maybe the 9 foot road was not wide enough for a ballooning backside… enter finger salute hear.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. How are you able to understand these questions???

    Thanks for the laugh! Welcome to Britain. The world of ‘reserve’.

    Re the tree, I’d never have noticed if you hadn’t said it.

    Happy weekend E! Hope it is sunny :)

    Love, light and glitter

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Enclosure laws. Parliament law that let landlords fence in the commons for sheep grazings and keep serfs from using said commons. Bad result force serfs. (Understatement).

    Don’t like Brussels sprouts. (More understatement)

    Fat and happy used to be a good thing to be.

    Have a good week. Keep us informed on these important issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As to 9-ft wide vehicles, I’d imagine they’re talking about a truck hauling a wide load. Where I live there are a lot of them, mostly, as you said, prefab homes, but there are also electric transformers, and other types of equipment.

    My real questions is, where does the term lorry come from, and how was it associated to a truck?

    I’ve seen saloon doors on the doorway into the toilet, but never on a toilet. Does it replace the toilet seat cover? Would seem like extra work to open two doors instead of one, then the damn things automatically close, getting seated before they snap closed would be a feat matching the quick-draw.

    As to brussel sprouts, this from a food history book: Before fast, reliable transportation took vegetables around the world, most were grown close to towns to guarantee supplies. As a result, vegetables often bore the names of these places, like “Argenteuil asparagus,” “Hamburg parsley,” and “choux de Bruxelles” or “brussels cabbage”. So, I assume they call it “choux de Bruxelles”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think our esteemed (in his own mind) Prime Minister should ask the sprouts question the next time he is in Brussels dictating to the EU on Brexit. They already think he’s a moron so he may as well confirm it for them 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So Agent Orange came to the NATO meeting in the UK and left early because he was suffering from Ego Angst. Boris Johnson gave him the cold shoulder just days ahead of another general election in Great Britain while Trudeau openly made fun of him. Macron refused to cozy up to the American president this time. Uh, oh. Could impeachment news cross the oceans to make Agent Orange’s toxicity international?
    Good for the Brits who give the American president a 21% approval rating. Please cross the pond and speak to our Republican senators who will somehow abandon their oath of office and allow this crook to remain in office. Shameful.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. On narrow roads, it is quite unlikely you can drive a Hummer down Parliament Street in Exeter. In fact, an apparently, umm… largely healthy and successful person from times past, might have had difficulty with it’s narrowest point of 2ft 1in. (I use imperial reluctantly but am mindful of the audience who didn’t even like their fries to be French, let alone the width of streets measured in something they came up with too).
    I only mention this as I used to work in a store two doors up from where it came out from the (much wider) High Street.
    As you were.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I confess to being someone who did not understand how mailboxes work in the US for almost an entire two years after we emigrated. Obviously I understood how the public street type of mailboxes work because, although a different shape and colour, they work in exactly the same way as UK mailboxes. What I had not had a lesson in, however, was how the mailbox on your own property functioned. I can only assume that nobody thought to clue me in because to them it was so bloody obvious. While I understood that I could receive mail in the mailbox at my house, I had zero clue that I could use it to send mail. For almost two years, I was taking myself on 40 minute round trip walks to the nearest public mailbox in order to post letters. I finally spotted someone popping mail into their mailbox and raising the little flag and I had an epiphany. I googled just to double check that my assumption about what they were doing was correct and then instantly called myself a dumbwit for not having figured it out sooner.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oops. It didn’t occur to me that the question was about home mailboxes. Thanks for that.

      My great-grandmother–who came to the US from Russia as an old woman–didn’t understand American public street-type mailboxes. I can only assume they didn’t have them in Russia at that point. She’d learned that she could get a letter to relatives in Russia from one mailbox, but she wasn’t sure about the others, so when my father mailed a letter for her, he had to use the mailbox she trusted.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Set on fire? Boy, did they know how to have fun in your neighborhood! I doubt that was what worried my grandmother. My best guess is that it was a question of whether it made a connection over that long, long distance. Who could tell? The others might go to other places.

          Liked by 1 person

              • It’s alarming, even paranoia-inducing…We don’t have home mailboxes in my neighborhood; we still have old rural route boxes, which of course are used mostly for junkmail. So, having agreed to participate in a postcard mailing campaign and received postcards WITH FIRST CLASS POSTAGE, I put one in a rural route box and raised the little flag…and found it there, a week later, with a sticker stuck to it saying “This mailbox is no longer serviced.”

                I may have missed something since the year a geriatric patient was pronounced competent on the basis of knowing that, when you see an unmailed letter with a first class stamp on it, even if it’s lying on the ground, you drop it in the mail. I think we now have a mail carrier who needs a court-appointed guardian…

                Liked by 1 person

    • With anything that makes absolutely no sense to me, I’ve learned to google it. It generally has something to do with sports. Since sports make no sense to me–well, we’ve come full circle here.

      There’s a mailbox in a nearby village where the letters don’t have a party but the snails do. They crawl in and eat the glue off the back of the stamps, so all the stamps fall off. Or at least they used to. People have learned to mail their letters someplace else. Why that only happens there I have no idea. Party house, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You are right, we should be very careful around how we wave our hands and fingers about in another country. Who knows what you’re saying. When I think of Britain one of the things that comes to mind is pubs, drinks and pub food. I also wonder why the chocolate over there (imported to Australia) is much better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pubs and hand signals: For someone not used to using two fingers to insult someone, it’s almost second nature to hold up two fingers if they ask for two beers, which won’t win them any friends. Unless of course they’re French (I’m working from memory on this, but I’m reasonably sure of it), where they start counting on the thumb, so holding up the index and ring finger would make someone think you want three beers.

      I can’t explain the chocolate, though. I’ve never had Australian chocolate, but I’ll admit to not being crazy about the stuff they make in New Zealand.


    • It does take some getting used to. It was white knuckle for us when we first visited (and it was knuckles, not glutes), but now it’s no big deal. Of course, we drive smaller cars, but even so, I did have to drive a big honkin’ people carrier around here for a while (long story) and found that it wasn’t the width that bothered me, but I did need half the county to turn the damn thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hello Ellen, I’m glad to catch up with you once again. Did you know you have made me want to live in England. And I’ve visited England; I thought I’d never want to live there. But reading you, I’ve changed my mind. Now to get the husband on board. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • And the Home Office. Their definition of success (set by a particularly nasty series of governments) is having more people leave than enter. We were lucky in our timing and got in just under the wire.


    • Sorry to be late. I think the Lib Dems are turning into the fat-free version of the Conservative Party, but I live in North Cornwall, where Labour isn’t strong so I held my nose and voted Lib Deb. Very, very reluctantly. After what they did by going into the coalition–especially to the NHS, but not only that–I wouldn’t mourn if they collapsed completely.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link. I just followed it and they do look good. (I use cider vinegar and milk in baking as well, usually as a substitute for buttermilk. It works well.) And yeah, a bit of understatement might make a nice balance these days (she said mildly.)


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