What people really want to know about Britain, May 2020 edition

Let’s take a break from doom and disaster. There’s enough to go around, so it’ll be there for us later. Instead, let’s dig through the search engine questions that Lord Google sends me and see what people want to know about Britain. I promise, you won’t learn a thing.

Food-related questions

british baking powder biscuits

There is no such thing as a British baking powder biscuit. Except at my house and they’re the American kind. And I can’t invite you over anyway because we’re still in lockdown–or we were when I wrote this and I trust we still will be when it goes live. Besides, there aren’t enough to go round. Sorry.

There is such a thing as a British scone, but a scone is not a baking powder biscuit any more than my cousin is me. Much to my cousin’s relief, I’m sure. They (and we) do have a family resemblance, which is why you’ll find British people who are horrified at the idea of eating biscuits and gravy. They’ve either mistaken baking powder biscuits (not sweet) for scones (a bit sweet but with a similar look–family resemblance and all that) or for what the British call biscuits, which are what Americans call cookies.

Is that confusing enough that I can stop there? Let’s talk about something else.

can cats eat sticky toffee pudding

Yes, technically speaking. They have mouths, which allow them to eat all kinds of things. But they can only do sticky toffee pudding if their humans (a) bring some home for them or (b) make some themselves. Cats–and I know this will upset some of you—can’t cook and wouldn’t bother if they could. A nice raw mouse is good for the digestion. Both going down and coming up.

You’re welcome.

raisin monday

This isn’t really about food, it’s about tradition, but raisins are food so let’s slip it in here.

Raisin Monday is one of those bizarre, centuries-old British traditions that—

I was going to say that no one can explain but this one’s unusual in that the origin is known. It’s just that even once you know it, it doesn’t make much sense so you still come away feeling like you don’t know. It involves raisins, shaving cream (that’s a modern addition), and silly costumes. Also alcohol, which may or may not be a modern addition. I can’t urge you strongly enough to go read the full explanation.

brussel sprouts and christianity

Is it just me or are the questions here getting stranger?

Brussels sprouts are a vegetable. As such, they have no religion. Neither, for the record, do apples, figs, or green beans. Neither does my cat, Fast Eddie, although he’s not a vegetable. Even the most evangelical proselytizer will, I think, accept that this is how things ought to be.

With that out of the way, we can address what may have been the question behind the question: Do brussels sprouts have any significance in Christianity? I’m probably not the best person to answer this–I’m not only Jewish, I’m an atheist, as I have to (have to, mind you) mention here every so often–but I can take a reasonable outsider’s guess. To the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, brussels sprouts are not mentioned in the Bible. Ask Lord Google about brussels sprouts and the Bible and you won’t end up with one of the psalms, you’ll end up looking at recipe and gardening books that claim to have the definitive word on whichever. They have titles like The Broccoli Bible.

Broccoli, just for the record, is not the same as brussels sprouts. And it has no religion either.

If there is a brussels sprouts psalm, I trust that someone will let me know about it. Or possibly write it. Ignorance like that can’t be allowed to continue, even if it’s mine and I treasure it.

This whole idea that brussels sprouts have some religious meaning comes, I’m reasonably sure, from the tradition of making two cuts in the base of the stems before you cook them. In theory, that makes the stem cook at the same speed as the leafy part. And since the two cuts form a cross (or an X, depending on which way you hold it), you end up with a kind of instant religious imagery, or you do in the minds of people who live surrounded by the imagery of that religion. I’m sure that somewhere along the line, someone told a younger someone, “That let’s the devil cook out of them,” and that got passed down through the generations.

I learned to make two cuts in the stem in the Jewish atheist kitchen that I grew up in and around. (That’s not a carelessly worded sentence. Of course my kitchen was both Jewish and irreligious. If you’ve never discussed religion and philosophy with your kitchen, you really should.)

Where was I?

The cuts weren’t a religious act. That was just the way I was taught to cook sprouts.

As an older, lazier, and more skeptical cook, I discovered that you don’t have to do anything more than rinse the things and dump them in the steamer. They come out just fine.

Who let me get started on this? Honestly, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

They also ripen in the winter, so in Britain people tend to serve them at Christmas, reinforcing the idea that there’s some meaning in it all. Much of life, my friends, is meaningless. The meaning is all in what you bring to it. And if that strikes you as profound, consider the source and throw the thought out your mental window.

Which gives us a neat transition to our next category:

The search for knowledge about life’s important subjects

is it called great britain anymore

No. Bucking the trends, it (that’s the country) has decided that Great Britain is too non-binary a name and from here on it will be called either Mary-Sue or Bear. It will (a) choose and (b) send in the paperwork for the change as soon as it decides which gender it is. In the meantime, it would like to be addressed as the country formerly known as Great Britain.

spiffing – do people say this

In the fourteen years that I’ve lived in Britain, I’ve heard it used in one conversation. To be fair, though, once it was dropped into that conversation, we must have repeated it three or four times each to reinforce how absurd the whole thing was. It was a spiffing conversation.

what is the financial system based on giving instad of taxes in churches like the church of England

I think what someone’s looking for here is the word tithe, which isn’t a financial system. Financial systems are things like feudalism, capitalism, socialism. Tithing is what Merriam-Webster calls a voluntary system of giving a tenth of your income to a religious establishment, but there was a time when it was about as voluntary as gravity, taxes, or believing what everyone around you did. This was back when you didn’t talk about “a religious establishment, “ or even “a church,” you talked about “the church,” the one and only, which you belonged to and paid your money to because the church had the power to demand that and you had the power to say yes to it. Imagining a life lived outside of the church was, for most people, like imagining a life lived outside of human society.

Tithing preceded that Church of England. The C. of E. just continued a tradition established by the Catholic Church, and that made me curious enough that I visited an Orthodox Church website to see if the Orthodox Church has tithes. It says tithing is “ is the Old Testament injunction to set aside 10% of all one possesses for the work of the Lord.” So yes, the Orthodox Church does that as well, and I’m going to guess that the tradition predates the split between eastern and western Christianity.

In Islam, the parallel tradition called zakat and it’s considered a tax, but it’s 2.5%, not 10%. In Judaism, tithing first appears in the Torah not as a commandment but as a practice of the patriarchs–or so the website I looked at told me. It’s not that I know this stuff. This being the Jewish tradition, the explanation involved sages with varying opinions on major and minor points and explanations of how the world’s changed since the patriarchs wandered through it and why that does or doesn’t back up the varying opinions. In other words, it’s long and full or arguments. For about half a paragraph, I was filled with nostalgia, then I gave up because it’s not a topic I care about and I’d found what I needed. You’re welcome to follow the link and split hairs to your heart’s content.

first word in the name of a document king john signed

That would be Magna. As in Carta. Although he surely signed other documents as well, in a roundabout sort of way, since signing as we know it wasn’t the way people validated documents then. If you were important enough to sign a document, you had a seal to do it. And if you were important enough to be king, you had people to wield the seal for you. Because why should a king exert himself?

Ihow do i pronounce west derby

I was ready to say, airily, that you pronounce it the same way you pronounce East Derby, only you switch East for West. Then I remembered where I am, and more to the point where Derby (East, West, chocolate, and plain) is. This is an English place name we’re talking about, and English place names are treacherous beasts. You don’t want to turn your back on one, ever. The only safe way to find out how one is pronounced is to creep up on the place in question and, once you’re near enough to see the “You are now entering” sign (or its equivalent; I think “You are entering” is an American thing), point at it and ask the closest person, “How do you say that word.”

And once they tell you, hope they’re actually from there, because if they’re outsiders they might be too embarrassed to tell you they don’t know and they’ll get it wrong.

99 thoughts on “What people really want to know about Britain, May 2020 edition

  1. Can’t believe you forgot to mention Fat Bastard asparagus, although it’s probably not available in Mary-Sue do to the indelicacy of its name, as distinct from the delicacy of its flavour.
    Your words on pronunciation remind me of the old joke about the young man flying to Honolulu seated next to a rabbi. The young man asks the rabbi, “Tell me, Rabbi, is the State pronounced Hawaii or Havaii?’ The Rabbi replies ‘Havaii.’ Thank you, Rabbi.’ ‘You’re velcome.’

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Never heard of baking powder biscuits. I’ve heard Americans talk about ‘biscuits’ but somehow I realised they were not the same as ours. While I’m on the subject… what are ‘grits’? I’ve just read ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’, and grits seemed to be the main staple of fare!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m so glad I hadn’t started breakfast when I read this. There’s still time for the image of mice going up and down to dissipate.

    The circle I move in says spiffing, but usually in an ironical way, so perhaps it doesn’t count.

    Since you live in Cornwall, where cream teas are de rigueur (used not ironically, but knowingly), you might not be aware of the joy of cheese scones. On most days, given the choice, I’d choose a cheese scone and butter over a cream tea.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Cat’s have no need to cook, they have many human slaves who are more than willing to do it for them, or at least open a packet or once cooked foods. This is strongly linked to why they don’t have a religion, they believe they are gods and should be worshiped!

    I have lived in Britain for 44 and a bit years and I don’t think I have every heard anyone use the word spiffing non-ironically. Bear in mind though, I was a baby for some of that time and not paying that much attention, and I grew up in Hull which is not that posh. Mind you I went to uni in surrey which is quite posh and I never heard it there either…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ll admit that I do associate Brussel sprouts with Britain. And now that I think about I cannot say why. As for the “can cats eat sticky toffee pudding” question, I’ve never contemplated that either. I feel as if I must be slipping. You do challenge me to expand my mind, filling it with Important Facts and Conundrums.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I think you missunderstood that question about West Derby – in two ways as well!. The question was “how do I pronounce west derby” to which the answer, surely, is “I don’t know, sir (or madam) how do you pronounce it?”. And, whilst Derby is a city that no doubt has a west and and an east part (a north and a south, too, I suppose), West Derby is a suburb of Liverpool so has to be pronounced with a Scouse accent.
    I gave up cutting Xs on sprouts a couple of years ago. Now I usually halve them. They cook much quicker that way (and it saves you having to cut them on the plate to reduce them to a comfortable mouth full).
    Tithes are a sore point with the Irish. Back when Henry VIII parted company with Rome’s religion the Irish refused to comply. But they had to pay tithes to the upstart protestant church and were forbidden to practice their own religion.
    Thanks for reverting to your usual witty self. You seem to have been watching too much pandemic news lately. It’s not good for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did go as far as looking up West Derby on a map, found it was outside Liverpool, and thought I’d better not go out on a limb on the pronunciation. I have no idea how it would be pronounced with a Scouse accent. I’m not even sure I’d recognize a Scouse accent if I fell over it in the dark. Even after 14 years, I’m not good at what accent comes from where. I’ve decided to think of it all as another of those British mysteries I’ll never understand.

      I hadn’t know that about the tithes. Thank you. And you’re right about the pandemic news–I am reading too much of it. And yet–.


  7. Spelling city names in a way that doesn’t resemble the way they are pronounced is something the early settlers brought with them. I remember being chastised for pronounce “Woburn” as “woe-burn” It is properly pronounced, I’m told, “Woo-brn” – in my mind, none of the the five or six vowels work.

    I can imagine parents making up all kinds of stories to get kids to eat brussels sprouts. This is where my father’s method (if you don’t eat them, you can’t have ice cream) is much simpler. They are like tithes, not something we were ever expected to enjoy. Of course, 60 or so years later, I do like them, brussels sprouts, not tithes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, in a choice between brussels sprouts and tithes, most people will choose the sprouts.

      I’ve given up trying to make sense of the distance between spelling and pronunciation in English place names. Or in English in general. I tell myself it’s an art form, so when I run into a Woburn I act like a collector and scoop it up greedily.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like ones where we Brits can’t agree on what we call somewhere. For example Greenwich. Is it Grinich? Grenich? Grinidge? Grenidge?
        The only sure things are that it is not Green Which, Grin Which or even Gren Which?
        Try Happisburg which is an historic village on the north-east coast of Norfolk. Pronounced “Haze-bruh” It was apparently spelt ‘Hapesburg’ in the Domesday Book so its been around long enough to get its spelling right!

        Liked by 1 person

        • We have one like that near us: Launceston. The Cornish pronunciation is Lanson (fair enough; it comes from Lan Steven). Incomers call it LAWNson and LAWNston. The only pronunciation that’s wrong is the way it’s spelled LawnCESSton. But hell, you guys can’t even agree on how to pronounce scone. That suits me just fine, because if you did agree, it would never be the way I pronounce it (American; rhymes with stone), but it does keep me amused.


          • We have a Launceston in Tasmania (which is a bit like an English island that drifted down here some time ago), which is pronounced either Lawnceston or Lonceston (or Lonnie for short). NSW has a town called Scone, pronounced the American way. By the way, can some UKanian explain why Featherstonehaugh is pronounced Fanshaw and Sidebottom is pronounced Siddy-bot-tom.

            Liked by 1 person

    • They (assuming you mean all non-pandemic posts, not just the search engine insanity) are actually coming just as often, it’s only that I’ve been posting so much in between.


        • Ah. I misunderstood. No, I went through a long stretch of time where either the search engine question were really boring or my sense of humor had gone to sleep. Or possibly both. Whichever way it worked, I couldn’t find anything to play off of. Then I was deluged.

          Go figure.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow – this post may take me an inordinate amount of time to digest and reflect upon. From brussel sprouts to religion in an irreligious kitchen to one of the staples in my southeast Texas cuisine, biscuits and gravy, I honestly can’t think of an intelligent response.
    Bless you for your excellent effort to switch to happier topics – I almost forgot about a word that begins with a capital C.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Now I want to go out and buy some freshly baked scones. And a box of British biscuits. There are sine good brands if British shortbreads that I need to add to my grocery list also.

    On this side we have British and Irish names, plus names from France, Germany and countries. Plus Indian/Native American place names. I solve it by calling everyone Bud or Buddy.

    Does looking spiffy come from spiffing. Spiffy is used a lot on this side.

    Stay spiffy and safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was struck, after I moved here, by the American habit of asking about a name, “How do you spell that.” With so many languages feeding into our pool of first and last names, it’s the only sane thing to do. As far as I can tell, it happens somewhere between less and never here, although my partner’s last name should drive anyone to ask.

      Spiffy, I’m sure, does come from spiffing–or maybe the other way around. Ditto to spiff something up. They sound absurd, but in a different way from spiffing.

      I’ve never been spiffy, but so far, thank, I am safe. You do the same–and enjoy your shortbreads.


  10. I am not an expert on any of these foods (and intend to keep it that way- though that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the post .) You piqued my curiosity about the difference between sausages from your part of the world and The Former Colonies. I am probably imagining things worse than they actually are…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Being from America I always thought a scone was more like the biscuits people put gravy on (which I don’t like– the biscuits; well I don’t like gravy either but…anyway)… it wasn’t until my son found a few fruit scones recipes he wanted to try baking from scratch that I discovered I LOVE them!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. As promised, I told you I’d drop in later. I’m sure you were really holding your breath there.🤣 Your wit shines through in this post. We can use all the humor we can get right now. I’ll have to wait until your novel comes out—Everything You Wanted to Know About Britain But Were Afraid to Ask.

    I read on your “About” page that you used to live in Minnesota. My three brothers and I managed to get spread out one in each of the continental time zones. Maybe that means we can’t stand each other. I Zoomed with the brothers last weekend, and we decided to postpone a family reunion that we had planned for June in Minnesota. My brother, Tom, lives in the tiny community of Litchfield, about an hour and twenty minutes west of the Twin Cities. I sure as hell hope we’re still not talking about the virus in a year when we try again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know Litchfield as a place name only. I don’t think I’ve ever been there, but it’s part of my mental map of Minnesota for reasons I can’t even explain to myself, never mind to you. Don’t go in January. In fact, don’t go in any of the eleven months of winter, and look out for the mosquitoes in the summer month.

      In an odd way, I do miss Minnesota, but it’s not an easy place to live.

      May you keep laughing. It doesn’t protect us against the virus, but it does help pass the time.


  13. Well, having given a dissertation on grits, I don’t know that I should comment much more, but they are delicious indeed. Though I suppose objections could be raised to their texture (cheese grits=sublime). As for Brussels sprouts, I don’t think they have much to do with religion, though there may be some festival where they play a part locally in some ritual (harvest festival? that would be too early). Mostly it’s just bread, wine, sheep, fish, goats, and pigs (verboten, those) along with figs and thistles. I think cattle get a mention too…hmmm…and grapes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course you should comment more. How else are we going to (a) learn or (b) amuse ourselves? I could be convinced, I think, by cheese grits. The idea of pouring maple syrup on them, which someone mentioned, strikes me as just plain wrong–right up there with putting blueberries in a bagel–but what do I know? I’m only southern by association, and that doesn’t give me much background to work with.

      I’ve never heard of brussels sprouts wandering into harvest festivals. Or anything other than Christmas and the oven. Even though people do boil or steam them, when they talk about them it’s always about roasting them.

      The British will roast anything.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I remember that one. And another map, also on a New Yorker cover and possibly from the same source, that went wild on the American view of the Middle East. I can’t call up the details, but they managed to work in a country called Karkheez.


    • First, forget everything you know about biscuits. These are baking powder biscuits, a non-sweet cousin to the scone. Think of a cheese scone without the cheese and you’re sort of there. You can butter it, right? You can use one to mop up the yolk of a fried egg, although I do understand that no one British would do such a thing. Or imagine it, for that matter. Any more than I’d mop up egg with a piece of apple pie.

      Okay, that didn’t work. Let’s start over. Think of the baking powder biscuit as a small, round, light piece of bread. You can butter it and eat it that way or you can chase your egg yolk around the plate with it. But wait, you’ve got gravy left on your plate. Can’t let that go to waste. Mop it up with your small, round light piece of bread.

      That was so good that you make gravy on purpose to serve with small, round, light pieces of bread. That’s biscuits and gravy.

      Mostly (I think–I’m a northerner and white and a vegetarian and disqualified in multiple ways from knowing much about the gravy part of this) you make the gravy out of sausage fat. American breakfast sausages are a whole ‘nother discussion, but they’re different than British sausages.

      Liked by 1 person

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