What people really want to know about Britain, part 21ish

It’s time to empty the search engine questions onto the kitchen table and see what Lord Google’s sent us. The questions appear here in all their oddity. And in case you worry that I’m making fun of the people who left them, I’m 99.9% sure that not a one of them stuck around to read my answers. They came, they saw, they thought, What the hell is this?, and they left.

British History and Culture

does anyone know why the british all wore those silly-looking white wigs ?

Oh, I am so glad you asked. I hadn’t gotten a decent search engine question in weeks and I’d been starting to think Lord Google had stopped caring about me. The answer is, first, yes. I know that and, oh, so much more. Most of which I won’t tell you because, having left your question, you’re gone, aren’t you? Besides, it would scare you shitless if you knew what I do. It sure as hell worries me.

But there’s a second part of the answer, which is that they liked their wigs. They took them seriously, in no small part because the wigs allowed them to look down on the wigless–the schmucks who were so poor they had to run around–publicly yet–in their own hair. Wigs were strictly for the upper classes. Think about it. Wigs weren’t just expensive, they were in style. It’s amazing what people will wear if it’s expensive and in style.

People who could afford to had more than one. Think of the wig as the Gucci bag its day. Or if you have a Gucci bag and take it seriously and I’ve insulted  you–sorry–fill in the imaginary blank with any expensive style you do think is ridiculous.

Now, O person who’s no longer here, think about something you own and love that’s the height of fashion. Then think about yourself in forty years, looking at a picture of yourself and (or in) it. Think how silly it (and quite possibly you) are going to look. 

That’s if we’re all still around in forty years, which is looking less likely every week.

Irrelevant photo: flowers from a village produce stall. Chrysanthemums, I’m reasonably sure.

cockwomble definition scottish

Is the Scottish definition of cockwomble different than (or from) the English definition of cockwomble? Or the Welsh, Irish, or Cornish one? I’m outside my area of expertise here  –if I have an area of expertise–but that doesn’t normally stop me from sounding authoritative. So I’m going to say no, the cockwomble grew out of a kids TV show, The Wombles, which was British, not English/Scottish/etc.ish. The show grew out of a kids’ book. A band by the same name grew out of some hallucinogens. 

No, I don’t know that. I’m asserting it in complete ignorance, but I do remember a moment or two of the seventies, which is what leads me to think–

And when someone comes along and tells me I’m wrong about any of that, I’ll be happy to shove over and give them the expert’s seat.

Lord Google is besieged by people asking about a link between cockwombles and Scotland. I know this because I asked him about it myself. I can’t find any reason to think the link exists, but if enough people ask eventually a link of sorts will be cobbled together.

cockwomble oxford english dictionary

I’m sure there’s a cockwomble working at the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s one anyplace with a staff of more than six. There might even be a definition of cockwomble in there somewhere. Dictionaries have gone refreshingly lowbrow these days. But what’s the question doing here instead of at the OED?

self esteem bell ringers

Y’know, I hate the phrase self-esteem. Or maybe it’s not the phrase but the idea. It strikes me as a short answer to a long and complicated question. I don’t trust it. But when you add it to something as noisy as church bells, it gets really annoying. Can we limit the bell ringing to people who don’t feel so damn good about themselves, please?

But since I slammed the question into the British Culture section–and I take these categories seriously, I’ll have you know–I’d better explain that bell ringing is a thing here. There used to be competitions. Maybe there still are.

And with that I’ve exhausted most of what I know on the subject. I’ll just sneak out quietly before anybody notices. 

anglo-saxon england notes

It was your class, sweetie. You’re the one who was supposed to be taking notes.

what were debtors called in great britain

Debtors. Also things like Alfred, Harry, James– Occasionally you might get a Sarah or something along those lines, but with the power to contract debts solidly in the hands of men, that seems to have been less common.

why do we eat brussel sprouts for christmas

Because Santa’s moved on from that coal-in-the-stocking routine. Times change, dear.

berwick on tweed at war with germany

No, no, no. It’s Russia that Berwick on Tweed isn’t at war with even though a lot of people think it is. Germany? Berwick also isn’t at war with Germany, but nobody except one late-night person messing around on the internet thinks it might be.

Although I suppose Berwick can not be at war with one country as easily as with another. Or with all of them at once. With the state the world’s in, it’s good to hear of someplace that isn’t at war. Even if it’s not a country and doesn’t have an army.

perwick island still at war

Look! We’ve got another variation on the theme of Berwick not being at war with Russia.

Lord Google couldn’t lead me to any Perwick Islands, but he doesn’t insist on precise spelling and told me instead about three Berwick Islands. One is in (or off) Australia, one is ditto in relation to Louisiana, and the third to South Carolina. After that we get to Lerwick, on the Shetland Islands.

None of them are at war with anyone. Isn’t that marvelous?

I’m learning so much about how rumors start.

how to pronounce tunnel

This is a perfectly sensible question, given how badly English-language pronunciation aligns with English-language spelling. Unfortunately, this is not a sensible place. Try a dictionary, friend. 

British Politics

supine stem of confiteor

This is a phrase our prime minister dropped into a speech to a bunch of blank-faced school kids, apparently in an effort to convince them that education was exciting and that they’d look back on these days as–well, who knows? The best days of their lives? A time when they’ll learn useless phrases they can later throw into a speech when they have no idea what point they’re supposed to be making? 

In a career that’s long on incoherence, this wasn’t Johnson’s most coherent speech. But it did follow his pattern of being able to say stupid things in Latin. Or partially in Latin. Most of it was in English, but nobody understood that part either.

when did the uk go metric

Some time ago, in a moment of Euro-madness. Or make that several moments of Euro-madness, and I’d give you an actual date but the country crept up on metricosity in stages, giving us one date for petrol (which if you’re American is gas) and diesel, another date for certain types of alcohol, no date at all for beer, at least in pubs, because it’s still sold in imperial measures, and–well, you get the drift. 

Now that we’re leaving the European Union, will we go back to our state of pre-metric innocence? Innocence is hard to recapture and I suspect the shift would be too much trouble for even the most hard-nosed Brexiteers, but I may be underestimating them. Or overestimating them. Or I may be, as a karate teacher I once studied with liked to say, overexaggerating. 

Americans in Britain

baking powder biscuit in england

Outside of my house, you won’t find a single baking powder biscuit in England. You’ll find scones, which are made with baking powder, but they’re a different thing. You’ll also find biscuits, which we Americans–being the perverse creatures that we are–call cookies, and they’re generally with baking powder too, but they’re not baking powder biscuits, they’re just biscuits. Made with baking powder

Are you confused yet? Then you’re getting into the spirit of the thing.

Baking powder biscuits look like scones but they’re not as sweet. 

Yeah, but what about cheese scones. They’re not sweet. 

We’re leaving them out of the conversation because they’ll only leave crumbs on the floor. They’re also different from baking powder biscuits, but (other than the cheese) I can’t explain why. It’s something you just have to take on faith.

You eat baking powder biscuits like bread: with a meal, without a meal, to mop up the gravy, with butter, with jam. The only thing you can’t do with them is toast them because you’ll never get them out of the toaster in one piece. 

Baking powder biscuits are a southern thing. They’re a Black thing. They’re a wonderful thing, and mostly we just call them biscuits. What they’re not is an English thing. Or (since this is probably what the question meant) a British thing. Americans are still trying to work out the difference between England and Britain. What do you expect from us? We still haven’t figured out the difference between the United States and America in general.

Questions that Defy Categorization


I thought I’d include it so you’d understand how strange it gets around here. Even without my intervention. I have no idea what it means.

how to politely reject the award

You mean on those special occasions when saying, “Fuck you, this is meaningless,” just won’t do? 

It’s not that hard. You start by saying thank you. Then you explain that you don’t do awards. If your reason is that they’re meaningless, you’ll want to keep it to yourself because you’re being polite, remember? If your reason is something inoffensive, you explain it. Then you get out of there while everyone’s still smiling. 

You’re welcome. I’m going to start an advice blog any day now, with a side of good manners and another one of cole slaw.


Somebody asked to find Amazon and Lord Google sent them to me. That must mean I rank higher than Amazon.

Would you like a side of cole slaw with that?

80 thoughts on “What people really want to know about Britain, part 21ish

  1. does anyone know why the british all wore those silly-looking white wigs?

    Ooo, I know that! It’s because hydrogen peroxide hadn’t been invented yet, but everyone still wanted to get into all the fun that blondes were having! Sadly, they couldn’t figure out how to make white wigs with black roots, which is key to having all that fun.

    Liked by 3 people

    • They did live in grim times, didn’t they? When white-blond hair with black roots became a style, I loved the idea of making a virtue out of what had once been a fashion scandal. So yes, I can see why that’s the look they were aiming for in those wigs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you really eat brussel sprouts (only) for Christmas?

    As for pronunciation, Serbian language has the easiest pronunciation you’ve ever seen. One basic rule rules – write as you speak, read as it is written. Besides, there’s no doubling of the consonants. You can learn to read it literally in a minute.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Probably not interesting in the scheme of things one wonders, but why has East Anglia got a Coat of Arms suspiciously similar to the Swedish triple crowns? Also, is it true that East Anglia still sounds like the English did at the time of the Increase? About which time I’m told my ancestors left Britain, via East Anglia, and did Massachusetts. And, you know, New England. (The best America.) Also, when British folk come to New England, do they immediately recognise most of the old (for us) town names?

    Liked by 1 person

      • Our Falmouth is a good town. There is a book I might like to hawk, called “Albion’s Seed,” by one Mr. Fischer. Speaks at length of the British composition of pre-1775 America. The first section on the Massachusetts Colony is fascinating, as it explains the lingual conventions from East Anglia which produced the Yankee accent. (Jan Kee being a popular Dutch nickname for the colonists.)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I didn’t think I put baking powder in scones… but apparently I do. Well according to several recipes online I do. I don’t have my recipe book with me so maybe I don’t… I definitely didn’t put sugar in them when I made them at school… but that was the 80s, sugar was outlawed.

    (I might have made the outlawing of sugar up…although we didn’t put it in anything because my mum got shouted at by a midwife… I suspect there is more to that story but it was a while a go)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Dearest Ellen. Can you please send me a care package containing the pharmaceuticals you were consuming when you wrote this, some of your baking powder biscuits and a grid reference for the seemingly non-existent Berwick Islands off Australia (where rumour has it that the last of the unicorn kangaroos live).

    Liked by 2 people

    • With–or so someone said in a comment thread–a tendency to wander around with his hand in his trousers. But that may have been a bit of colorful embroidery on the theme of general dislikableness.


    • According to Wiktionary: cockwomble (Britain, slang, derogatory) A foolish or obnoxious person. Urban Dictionary has it as: Cockwomble (noun) A person, usually male, prone to making outrageously stupid statements and/or inappropriate behaviour while generally having a very high opinion of their own wisdom and importance. (And probably engaging in the practice Ellen referred to genteelly below). I propose that the collective noun for a group of cockwombles be known as a Cabinet.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Yes, I always wondered aboyt those wigs…..and i always thought cockwomble was a very English term. I fist came across it on a facebook page dedicated to the Archers, and you cant get more English than that (although there are Welsh, Nortern Irish and Scottish characters in the show).

    Liked by 1 person

      • I am safely say that you have insulted the Welsh and Scottish and some of the Northern Irish people (the unionists) there by muddling them with the English, but never mind, you are from USA and we have very little idea where anything is except NY, LA and Florida and the USA!!

        Liked by 1 person

              • And some are very clear that Cornwall is not England. What continually throws me is that the British government runs England. I regularly forget who’s in charge of what aspects where–especially since the powers that got devolved are different for each nation. Y’know the person who invented English spelling? That’s the same person who thought up this system.

                Liked by 1 person

              • That’s interesting that some people in Cornwall dont regard it as England. English spelling is crazy because it has absorbed so many words from other languages and doesnt change the spelling and that why there are so many more words in “English” than any other language 200,000 I think.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Cornwall used to be an independent country–never conquered by the Romans–and was overrun by the Anglo-Saxons not long (I think) before the Norman invasion. It kept its language into the 17th century (as usual, don’t trust me on dates). There’s no clear line, though, between Cornish and not-Cornish, which I find interesting. I’m told you have to have four generations in the ground before you can count yourself Cornish. Cornish nationalists are distinctly a minority, but they’re around and they’re vocal.


    • They’re failing in their responsibility to the English language. We need to do something about this, only I can’t think of anything quite batty enough to live up to the importance of the issue.


  7. “…innocence is hard to recapture…”
    Amen, sister girl, she said with a mouth full of homemade biscuits and gravy.
    Innocence isn’t the only thing that’s hard to recapture, is it? Insert honesty, reliability, loyalty, respect, kindness – they have left the building with Elvis.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. After seeing the latest Trump ad, narrated by our former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (who used to be somewhat sane and competent) we have decided there are HENwombles too.

    “confiteor” ?? Has your PM been sniffing “covfefe”?

    Could we get a side of fries instead of cole slaw ? Or since we’re in the UK, i guess I mean a side of “chips.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Confiteor? I should probably have asked Lord Google to translate that for me, but it didn’t occur to me to make some minimal sense out of that blither. I just assumed it was Latin for something irrelevant.

      And yes, I think you’re onto something about henwombles. Somehow, though, it doesn’t have the same punch as cockwombles.


  9. Following on from “cockwomble” (which I’ve only been aware of for 10-15 years, so about the timeframe for a child of the Wombles era to arrive at young adult swearing+nostalgia age), I notice in recent years an extension of the [single-syllable swearword]+[comedic two-syllable animal] derisive insult. Whether this has anything to do with the prominence of certain politicians/celebrities, I couldn’t say. But you can have fun with the formula – try “gibbon”, “monkey”, “wombat” and so on with the expletive of your choice, if you have time.

    Liked by 1 person

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