What people really want to know about Britain, part who’s counting?

Let us enter, once again, the depths of the internet, whose current wash strange questions to the shore here at Notes.

But you need to know a few things about the process before we go on: First, no feelings were hurt (or so I tell myself) in the process of turning me loose on these questions. They come from people–or I assume they’re people–who flit through here, driven by whatever whim propelled them at 2 a.m. to ask Lord Google for information on subjects they may not have actually cared about, and then flit right on out, leaving behind their questions but not their consciousness. Second, the questions appear in all their original oddity, except that I’ve italicized them. Third, I used to answer them seriously. It didn’t take long to get boring. 


Irrelevant Photo: The view from Castle Point, where there is no castle. The flowers are heather and gorse.

double space after full stop uk

For the sake of American readers, I need to explain this before I answer it: The question isn’t about social distancing at two stop signs. In Britain, a full stop is that tiny dot you put at the end of a sentence: a period. Back in the old days, when we used typewriters and that seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, we were taught to double space after a period. That pool of wide-open paper made it easier to spot the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next.

In my school, by the way, only girls learned to use typewriters. They were considered too technical for boys. 

Then word processors came along and spoiled the fun by introducing proportional spacing.The divisions between sentences now jumped out without the help of an extra space. So the second space went the way of the typewriter and the quill pen, although 30% of the people in a survey (which may or may not be representative of I have no idea what population) still think it’s correct to double space.

If you want to know more about this (and who wouldn’t?), here’s a link

I can’t explain why Lord Google thought this was the place to send people for information about that, but now that I’ve written about it, he’ll send more.

Now let’s double back and explain my second sentence for the sake of non-American readers: In most (possibly all) states in the U.S., failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign will earn you a traffic ticket. But only if you get caught, which mostly you don’t. 

difference between anerican beeband british beer

You drink one in America and the other in Britain unless you want to pay extra for an import. One’s spelled with an R and the other with an extra B and no space at all before the and

berwick and russia at war

This is the longest non-war in history, and it has the biggest following. 

how do you pronounce river teign


Teignmouth, though, the place at the mouth of the River Teign? Logic says you’d pronounce it the same way. 

Logic is wrong. This is England. Those are place names. Abandon hope. It’s Tinmuth.

And the government of the area, which is called the Teignbridge Authority? We’re back to teen.


Most people call me bigmouth, but widemouth is far from the worst thing anyone’s called me. The place name, though, is pronounced Widmuth.

english holiday with sprouts

Back in the old days, this was known as Christmas, but the world changes and we have to change with it. It’s now known as English Holiday with Sprouts. 

These are brussels sprouts we’re talking about, for those of you who aren’t clued in to the oddities of British culture. I don’t answer questions about either bean sprouts or that hairy fuzz that grows out of alfalfa seeds. 

The sprouts holiday–

Let’s capitalize that: The Sprouts Holiday falls on Christmas, and folks gather around to eat brussels sprouts (and possibly other things, but the presence of sprouts obsesses a category of people who buzz around this blog like flies). 

Sorry, I got sidetracked. The people gather, eat sprouts, and wear silly paper hats. They place two desserts on the table and set fire to one of them.

That is–however strange it sounds–true.

The question should probably be about a British Holiday, though, not an English one, but I’ve never spent the Sprouts Holiday in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, so I don’t really know how integral sprouts are there. I’d be happy to hear reports from the other nations on this crucial topic. 

Don’t you love that people turn to me to learn these things? Who better to explain the intricacies of the British Christmas tradition than an American Jewish atheist? This, my friends, is the true meaning of multiculturalism. 

Whatever that was you just threw at me, you missed. 

But let’s go back to the question and make sure we cover all possibilities. It might have been about taking your sprouts on holiday with you, which in American would be taking your brussels sprouts on vacation. Because, hey, it may be a holiday (or vacation) for you, but if you leave your sprouts at home, what kind of time are they having? The world would be a better place if we all took our vegetables into account when we made our plans. 

You’re welcome, and a 50-page position paper on the subject will arrive in your inbox tomorrow. Please get back to me with any changes by Monday. 

how did carriages pass on narrow english country lanes in olden days

This is, surprisingly, a good question. I don’t know what it’s doing here either. English country lanes are narrow. So are British country lanes in general, but let’s not get into that. Horse-drawn carriages didn’t have a reverse gear.

The partial answer is that country lanes aren’t an even width. They have wider spots, where you can pull over, swat horseflies, check your phone messages, and wait for that oncoming carriage to pass.

The rest of the answer? What happens when you’ve got a blind bend in the road and no wide spot? Your guess is as good as mine. What I can tell you is that I live in an area with lots of narrow lanes and blind curves and I’ve seen the shipwrecked remains of abandoned carriages or the bones of the horses that pulled them, so they must have figured out a way to go on.

debtors prison england

Where we’ll be if we don’t break down and admit that we need to tax those who can best afford taxes.

why call great britain

Because it’s running this fantastic ad campaign: Do you want your tea hot, your weather cool, your history complicated, and your spelling unpredictable? Call Great Britain! We deliver. 

parky used nineteenth

This is our mystery question. There’s always one. [Warning: I’m about the offer the world a bit of misinformation. In my defense, I was repeating what I’d been told by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. The more fool me. See the comments for a correction or three.] Parky comes from a bit of Cockney rhyming slang: It’s parky in the mold means it’s cold. Mold is the rhyming bit, so it gets dropped because otherwise the phrase might make sense to people who didn’t already know what it meant. 

Nineteenth, though? Used? All suggestions, however bizarre, are welcome. 

92 thoughts on “What people really want to know about Britain, part who’s counting?

  1. I’d never really had much to do with double spacing after a full stop until my last job before I retired. My manager used it in everything he wrote, including emails. I’m glad you’ve explained why.

    I learned to type in the early 80s. I was bad at it and I suspect I gave up long before we got to the lesson with double spacing.

    Liked by 4 people

        • Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think, depends on how much you want to fit into industry standards on this. Or to put it another way, how stubborn you want to be about something pretty minor. (No, I’m not in the least judgmental.)

          Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, but (if you’re doing a search-and-replace, one space for each two) you do need to run it more than once, to cater for those who will inexplicably leave not just two spaces, but three or more.

        And then there’s the category of trained-on-typewriter writers who can’t seem to grasp the idea of word wrap, and insist on putting a hard return at the end of every line. Then they go back and insert spaces between the words to ‘make it look better’. In my experience, this class of writer also thinks, for some bizarre reason, that fully justified is the only way to go….

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

          Back when justified text was hard to produce, it was considered classier–or at least in the low-rent publishing circles I traveled in. Then it became something anyone could do by pressing a figurative button and, lo and behold, unjustified text was the designers’ new favorite. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Parky is sometimes the nickname given to Micheal Parkisnon, and nineteenth hole is often the name given to the pub/club at the end of a golf course,
    maybe this is a shorthand way of asking whether Michael Parkinson frequented the Nineteenth

    Or possibly someone thinks the, now used, nineteenth century was a bit cold…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Simple enough.
    Parky = Nickname of fossilised TV presenter Michael Parkinson, currently seen flogging insurance policies to over 50’s (he is just over 50 himself by about 50 years) in daytime TV adverts and promising a ‘free Parker pen for just enquiring’
    Nineteenth = the bar at a golf club, ‘The Nineteenth Hole’
    So “Michael Parkinson used the bar at the golf club.”
    Why that’s something worthy of googling, I don’t know.

    Of course, the other alternative is I could be completely wrong.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I only learned about the move from double space to single space in the last couple of years, and the rationale behind it even more recently. Unfortunately, old habits die hard. You’ll see double spaces after all my periods here. I’m one of those people who doesn’t think it looks bad at all. And boy, is it natural to just tap my thumb twice after each full stop. Even more unfortunate is that fact that I am going to have to do the hard work of unlearning this, as I am getting my copyediting certificate with the hopes of adding that as a side gig. If I’m going to tell my clients to knock it off, I probably should, too. Probably.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. People really are obsessed with sprouts, aren’t they? I still double space when typing on a keyboard not because I think it’s right but because I spent so many years at a manual typewriter that I’ve simply not broken the habit. My kids will tell you that it also took a long time for me to stop thumping keyboards keys too hard so there’s hope I might break the double space habit.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. For one, I still use two spaces at the end stop. And Windows lets me set it up.
    I also use that funny a comma, b comma, and c rule…learned way back, Rule D 31.
    Your stories tickle me so.
    I pass them on to my dear friend in Lewes.
    Four visits, and three summers at Cambridge… I do so count myself an Anglophile. And I would come over in a heartbeat!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Despite that wonderful first comment, I still have no idea what parky means. Except there was a margarine by that name (maybe there still is).

    On some of the “Meet the Press” type shows Over Here, reporters have taken to saying “Full stop !” when they mean “period.” Odd to hear it vocalized.

    And “taters” also have sprouts. I discarded several today when I was preparing lunch.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I hate to do this, but some correction need be made: “debtors prison england” – Sounds to me like the people (or countries) that England owes money to have just sent the country to prison.

    Now that that horrid part is over, a comment on the horse thing. My FIL grew up in Ireland, he told me once that when two people in the country (he worked the family farm, happens when you’re at the bottom of the family tree) meet on a narrow road one of them has to back up to the closest break in the road. It can take hours, and a good fight, for one of them to admit that they are closer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That still happens, but with cars it’s easier. Although everyone–including me–has a tale or two about someone pissing them off enough that they simply turned off their car and sat there. One guy claims to have opened the paper and poured himself a cup of tea, but you know how these stories grow.

      You could be right about debtors prisons. They’re going to have to be extremely large.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh how funny the Brits have weird words and how to say them just to confuse everyone. In Australia we do too..only one that comes to my mind is Castle..in Western Australia where I was born and grew up we say CARstle…in Victoria where im living they say Kastle…..#SeniSal

    Liked by 2 people

    • I blame English-language spelling. I once edited a series of kids books and had to work out phonetic spellings for a short list of vocabulary words–in ways that would (presumably) make sense to kids with multiple accents. It was a nightmare. So, English-language spelling and many localized sense of humor.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The late and much missed Victoria Wood got one of her biggest laughs by including in her song “Regeneration” the proverbial definition of a bad cook that they “put their sprouts on in November”.

    (I see that the Drama channel will be re-running her sitcom “dinnerladies” from 30 August)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If it helps any, I’m from Wales, and sprouts were always such an important part of my Christmas dinner growing up that – once we were old enough to be relatively trustworthy wielding knives – me and my brothers would traditionally gather around the table to trim them on Christmas Eve ready for the next day’s dinner. It involved a lot of messing about, and a great deal of eventual sprout trimming, so took longer than you might think. But it also kept us where we could be both supervised and relatively out of the way while our parents did the rest of the dinner prep.

    Liked by 2 people

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