About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.

British traditions: May Day in Oxford

May Day swept past weeks ago, but that won’t stop us here at Notes. We’re not so small-minded that we’ll be bothered by a little thing like the calendar. I learned about the Oxford May Day celebrations from a newspaper photo and caption, and the clipping just rose to the top of the swamp I call my computer table. So let’s slip back in time.

Oxford celebrates May Day in traditional style, and Britain takes its traditions seriously. At 6 a.m., the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin; don’t ask; no answer will make sense of it anyway) College choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus” from the Great Tower as the sun comes up.

A quick reality check before we go on, though: The sun came up at 5:36 that day. I just looked it up. But who am I to argue with tradition?

Marginally relevant photo: This is a flower–a lupine if you want to be specific. May Day has to do with the coming of summer, when flowers bloom. I know, it was a stretch, but we got there.

According to one source, the choir has been doing this for 500 years. Presumably not with the same singers. According to another source, the song was composed in the 17th century. I just counted on my fingers and that would make it 400 and some years old (probably—we can’t trust my fingers when they’re counting stuff), but if tradition says it’s 500 years old and the sun’s just coming up, okay, it’s 500 years and the sun just rose. See its little red dome poking over the horizon?

Yes, England is a cloudy country. That’s why it can have a 500-year-old tradition and in all that time never notice that it’s mis-timed the sunrise.

After the song, the bells ring out for twenty minutes and everyone goes deaf.

Sorry, that’s “approximately twenty minutes” and everyone goes deaf. I don’t want to misrepresent this.

After that, there’s morris dancing on the streets, breakfast in cafes and pubs all over the city, and if I’m reading this right, a whole shitload of drinking, which starts the night before and continues until everyone falls over. Or (see below) jumps into the river.

Oh, and there’s some deeply traditional samba dancing.

Samba was introduced to Britain in the 1980s by, among others, the passionate anti-apartheid activist Steve Kitson. Since then, Britons have been dancing it so intensely that by now it’s been going on for 500 years.

Magdalen (pronounced—oh, one way or another; I’ll get to that in a minute) Bridge is closed to traffic from 3 a.m. till 9 a.m., but it’s open to pedestrians. In the 1980s, people started jumping off it into the river Cherwell, and in 2005 some 40 people were hurt, including one who was left paralyzed. The river can be low at that time of year. The city works madly to discourage jumpers. Some of whom have been drinking for 500 years by then.

I’m going to be deeply discouraged if someone convinces me that the song really is 500 years old and that the sun rose at 6. In the west.

Now, about Magdalen Bridge. The college is pronounced maudlin. Magdalen Street is pronounced magdalen. Magdalen Road is pronounced maudlin. The bridge? I don’t know. My best guess is that the M, G, D. L, and N are silent.

I’ll write about morris dancing in a separate post. Stay tuned.

What really matters in British politics

You have to love British politics. We just had an election in which the prime minister, Theresa May—at least as I type this she’s still the prime minister, although I wouldn’t put any large amount of money on that lasting—was opposed in her bid to continue as a member of parliament by Lord Buckethead, Elmo, and Howling “Laud” Hope.

But before we go into detail, a bit of background for anyone who isn’t used to British elections: In spite of being the prime minister, May had to run for her seat in parliament, just like any other member of parliament. All prime ministers do. If she couldn’t keep her seat, she wouldn’t be prime minister anymore.

It must be humbling to go from wheeling a dealing and giving orders to begging for votes on equal terms with the rest of your party.

Especially when people don’t take it seriously.

Irrelevant and not particularly good photo: Buttercups. Sorry–I’ll try to do better next time.

Let’s start with the most dramatic of her opponents, Lord Buckethead, who wears a black cape and has a black bucket–or something black and vaguely bucketish–on his head. As far as I can figure out, he ran without the backing of any party. Political parties can be short sighted like that. Think of the publicity they could’ve gotten.

He describes himself as an “intergalactic space lord.” The article I learned this from says his real name is unknown, although for all we know he asked Google to translate his name from intergalactic space lordish into English and it comes out as Lord Buckethead.

Note to all reporters: Check your assumptions before you pass them off as facts. This stuff matters.

Anyway, Theresa May’s campaign, both in her own constituency and around the country on behalf of her party, consisted of droning the slogan “strong, stable leadership” at every possible opportunity. Buckethead promised strong but “not entirely stable leadership.”

That won him 249 votes.

He (or someone else with the same name and a bucket on his head) also ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992, when they were the prime ministers. In Britain, you don’t have to live in the constituency you’re running for office in—or even pretend to live in it—so running against a prime minister? It’s something you can do on a whim, as long as you have the filing fee, which is £500, and meet a list of fairly boring qualifications, such as not being a member of the police or armed forces, a civil servant, or a judge.

Buckethead apparently qualifies, and he even has policies. One is providing safe, effective opposition to Theresa May. Another is turning a safe seat (that means a parliamentary seat that a party’s almost guaranteed to win) into an ejector seat. A third is investing in schools, the National Health Service, social care, local infrastructure, and “other things humans vote for.”

He also promised to nationalize the singer Adele and abolish all lords except himself. And just to prove he’s serious about this, he has a campaign song.

Okay, I’ve heard better singers. Hell, I’m a better singer, because he doesn’t set the bar very high. But then the better singers I’m talking about weren’t singing from inside a bucket, so we should probably cut the guy a little slack.

Elmo also ran against Theresa May, but he only got 3 votes, probably because he appeared under the name Bobby Smith instead of Elmo. I mean, Bobby Smith? Who’s going to vote for him? On the other hand, he got to appear on the platform, dressed as Elmo, alongside May and Lord Buckethead when the votes were counted.

Lord Buckethead stole the show, though.

Still sticking with May’s constituency, the Monster Raving Loony Party (“vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party—The only sane thing to do in a world gone mad”) backed Howling “Laud” Hope, who won 119 votes and got to take the quotation marks home with him, since they appeared on the ballot. I don’t know if he had to change his name legally to appear on the ballot that way. It’s something Elmo should ask him about.

“Laud” Hope was also on stage, although looking at the BBC’s photo—which is wonderful—I’m not sure which one he is since he wasn’t in costume. The party could learn a thing or three from the independents.

But enough of Theresa May’s constituency. Let’s move on. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had to run against Mr. Fish Finger (sometimes spelled Fishfinger), who according to the Guardian (see the first link) upstaged Farron’s victory speech.

Fish Finger took the name legally after a Twitter poll of 1,000 people showed that 90% of them would rather be led by a fish finger than by Farron.

What’s a Twitter poll? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you ask 1,000 of your closest friends to agree with you.

Mr Finger (or maybe that’s Mr. Fishfinger) crowdfunded his campaign, raising £2,301. His page says he trusts “to Cod that you will keep giving.”

I was having a good time with all this until I read his twitter page, which (to the extent that I can figure out what he’s saying) is full of anti-immigrant crap and bad puns. Okay, full disclosure: the puns were on the crowdfunding page and I was willing to overlook them until I decided I hated the guy.

Strong opinions on the subject? Nah. I treasure my objectivity.

Still, he upstaged Tim Farron beautifully during the vote count. And got 309 votes. Plus he’s now the proud owner of a ratty-looking fish finger costume, and Halloween is coming.

And that, my friends, is what really goes on in British politics.

Emergency calls in Britain

What constitutes a crisis in Britain? Not much, if you ask some people, so periodically the ambulance/police/fire/coast guard emergency number publicizes a handful of the weirder calls they get in a—doomed, I’m sure—effort to make people get serious about this. They’re being tweeted at #ThinkBeforeYouDial!

So here we go: a quick visit to what the emergency number—999—deals with.

Someone wanted to borrow a charger for their phone’s battery.

Someone complained that the groomer had shaved their dog instead of trimming it.

Someone asked when the betting shops close.

Irrelevant photo: wild gladiolus–also called whistling jacks in the Scilly Isles.

Someone complained that McDonald’s didn’t give him a Monopoly sticker with his drink.

Someone asked, “Will I get arrested if I move my housemate’s banana?”

Yes, almost surely.

Someone said, “My TV is broken and Eastenders in about to start.”

Someone wanted the number for British Gas.

Someone’s hamster was sick.

One thoughtful soul wanted the non-emergency police number, presumably so they wouldn’t have to bother 999.

Someone wanted a takeaway place prosecuted because his food was 45 minutes late.

One tweet was from what seems to be a German police force and I don’t know any German, so when I was offered a translation of course I took it. It says, according to the translation program, “Yesterday #NoNotruf, today #DaFürDich. Tomorrow then there is also a.”

That strikes me as a genuine emergency. Of course, I worked as in publishing before I retired, not in emergency services. My definition of an emergency may not be much use in the real world.

*

This may or may not be related, but the World Health Organization reports that Britons drink almost twice the global average. People in Britain who are over fifteen drank 12.3 liters of pure alcohol—or its equivalent, since I doubt anyone’s chugging pure alcohol. I think that’s per year but for all I know it’s per hour. The worldwide average is 6.4 liters. I’d give you a link, but everything I find online is from earlier years and the article was in the Western Morning News, which has pretty much disappeared from the web lately.

Of course any worldwide average includes Muslim-majority countries, where I wouldn’t expect to find a huge number of drinkers. That would lower the global average. On the other hand, I’m hopeless with numbers. Maybe even after you allow for a significant number of nondrinkers in the sample, being over the average means you’re drunk on your ass.

I can testify that people around here drink pretty heavily. And after they drink, a lot of them sing. Some of them fight. A few of them dial 999.

British regionalisms

Bit about Britain left a comment saying, “I relish the fact that this tiny island still has some smashing little regional variations. When you have a moment, look into words like ginnel and twitten and see where you end up.”

Where I ended up was in a narrow alley between two buildings, because that’s what a ginnel is in the North. I’m not sure what parts of the North. We’re going to have to treat it like one undifferentiated place, which it’s not—I’ve lived in Britain long enough to know that much. Treating it that way is like expecting the Southwest to be unified when Cornwall and Devon are still duking it out over who invented the pasty and how to eat a cream tea.

But we were talking about ginnels, weren’t we? (That trick of embedding a question that your listener–or in this case reader–can’t answer is very British, by the way. but that’s a whole nother digression.)

It might help if I explain that ginnels are kind of like snickets, but one’s longer and wider and the other’s not only narrower and shorter but also covered, and no I don’t remember which is which and I’ve lost the link that would’ve explained it. But snicket‘s another northern word, although I still don’t know what part of the north we’re talking about. I live in Cornwall, where we don’t use either word. I had to look them both up.

When I did, Google asked if I wanted it to translate ginnel into French.

Sure, I said.

In French, you’d say “ginnel,” it told me, although not exactly in those words.

Thanks, I said, because I’ve lived in Britain for eleven years now and I know how important it is to say thanks. Especially when you’re dealing with something as demented as a Google search.

Marginally relevant photo, although it won’t be clear at this point why: This is a columbine, or granny’s bonnet–or Aquilegia vulgaris if you like Laatin.

Going back to English, though, the word ginnel can be traced back to 1619, when it was a word for a drain. The connection between a drain and an alley is probably that they’re both channels.

The connection between a pasty and a cream tea is that they’re both something to fight about.

A twitten is a narrow path between hedges (or it’s any old alley, depending on who you want to believe, so we’ll skip the links), but it’s from Sussex, a country on Britain’s south coast, not in the north.

If you want to say that in French, you’d say “twitten.”

Am I doing something wrong with the translation program? I really hope not, because I’m learning so much.

Since we’ve mentioned Sussex, I have an excuse to introduce the history behind its name. It was one of the ancient British kingdoms and the name comes from the Old English for South Saxons, Sūþsēaxe. You’re on your own figuring out how to pronounce that. Old English and modern English aren’t on speaking terms. But I’m pretty sure it translates into French as Sūþsēaxe.

Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons and Essex of the East Saxons. As I-can’t-remember-who so knowledgeably pointed out, the county called NosSex, where the North Saxons would have lived, is missing from the list and from the map, presumably because It wouldn’t have lasted more than a single generation.

But I’ve wandered again, haven’t I? What would I write about if I didn’t? We were talking about local words. British English is rich in them.

Not long ago, a friend told me that in the Scilly Isles (pronounced, yes, silly) wild gladioli are called whistling jacks. Wild Thing and I have often wondered why even semi-serious gardeners here use the Latin names for most of their plants, and when I was introduced to whistling jacks I decided it’s because the common names were so local that no region could talk plants with any other region unless they fell back on Latin.

It may not be true, but it is convincing.

I struggle to remember plant names in Latin, even if they belong to plants we’ve dug into our garden and with which we regularly discuss the meaning of life. Latin names just don’t have the resonance of, say, honeysuckle (lonicera) or dogwood (cornus).

I had to google cornus. In French it’s cornus, but only if French gardeners use Latin.

*

Historian Todd Gray, author of How to swear like an Elizabethan in Devon, is (or at least was) walking through Devon and giving presentations. Devon isn’t Cornwall and the Southwest isn’t one undifferentiated mass, but we’re open minded here; we can mention Devon. His lectures are about local language and—I think—history.

One of his interests is what people from various towns were called—usually by people from the nearby towns. If you were from Bradford, you were a Honiwink. If you were from Coombe Martin, you were a Shammickite. And if you were from Meshaw, you were a Mumphead.

You learn so much useful stuff here, don’t you? Can I translate those into French for you? I’ve become fluent surprisingly quickly.

“Devon is so distinctive,” Gray told the Western Morning News. “Every few miles the stone changes, the houses change and the history changes. The nicknames get to the heart of every community.”

You can find a list of nicknames here.

One reason the houses and history changed in such a short distance—and one reason local words survived—was that in the 1700s the roads in the Southwest ranged from terrible to terrible, so if you wanted to go anywhere, you walked. Which in case you haven’t done it lately, takes a while. Or I guess you rode a horse if you had that kind of money. But forget about a cart or a carriage—the roads didn’t allow for that kind of carrying on.

So people didn’t get very far very fast–or probably even very often. Regions, towns, and villages looked inward, developing their own words and reference points and cultures.

The breathtaking thing is that traces of that survives.

How British and American electoral systems differ

One of the strange things about the British parliamentary system—at least to this American, raised as I was on the fixed-term congressional system—is that the prime minister can call an election whenever the mood takes her, as Theresa May recently did. She and her husband were out walking in the wilds of I forget where and—never mind that she promised that she wouldn’t do this—she decided to call a snap election. Quick, while her party was well ahead in the polls.

This election was so snap that none of the parties—including hers—had a manifesto ready, which voters here think of as a necessity.

Now manifestos are new to me. Sort of. The only one I ever heard of before I moved here was the Communist Manifesto, so I just assumed the word had a heavily leftwing slant. But no, they’re mainstream as hell here. Every party—right, left, and center—puts one together to let voters know what they’ll do if they’re elected. This actually matters because the leader of the party that has a majority in Parliament gets to be prime minister and therefore, at least in theory, has the power to deliver on the party’s promises.

If, of course, any one party has a majority, which is by no means guaranteed.

Is this couple (not quite) holding hands and walking into the sea to avoid election news? Nah. They have a dog with them. They wouldn’t do that. It’s just a quiet day at the beach in Cornwall, with people wearing street clothes and jackets. The photo is, as usual, completely irrelevant.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto promised free university tuition, which they argued would be fairer to students. Then after the elections, they went into coalition with the Conservatives and ended up not only dumping the promise but tripling tuition—which they now argue was fairer to students. They’re still trying to live that one down.

Neither the Lib Dem or the Conservative manifesto from that election said they’d reorganize the NHS—in fact, the Conservatives promised no more top-down reorganizations. Then they reorganized the NHS.

Twice.

Badly.

So you can see, these manifestos carry a lot of weight.

Still, people read them and consider them some sort of guide to what a party intends.

Under the American electoral system, no one knows what the parties stand for, and no one really expects to. The idea that either of the two major parties would be united behind a set of views or proposals is pretty much foreign to us. I think it was Will Rogers who said, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

We do know what the candidates say. And we know it’s likely to be forgotten as soon as they’re in office. (“I’ll build a wall. And it will be a beautiful wall. And Mexico will pay for it.”)

But getting elected in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee the power to do anything, so they have a perfect excuse.

All of this may be why American elections are so focused on personality. Or it may not. I’m guessing.

But let’s go back to the British campaign:

Once the election was announced, the pollsters scrambled and consulted the chicken entrails and reported that the Conservatives were on track to win a huge victory. The parties scrambled and eventually, after a leak or two, got their manifestos out. The Conservatives got a faceful of opposition to one of their proposals and announced that they didn’t really mean that one. The pollsters checked the entrails of a different chicken and reported that Labour, which went into the campaign so divided that it looked like a Civil War re-enactment club, was closing the gap.

More chickens were sacrificed. The results all contradicted each other and still do, but the Conservatives’ comfortable lead no longer looks comfortable.

Here in the Southwest, the chickens all moved north and east, and very wise they were, too. As a result, the June 1 Western Morning News, making a heroic effort to report on the local campaigns, was reduced to quoting the betting odds, which had the Lib Dems are favored  to retake two seats they lost to the Conservatives in the last election by 7 to 2 in one district and 4 to 1 in another.

It’s been an interesting campaign. We vote on June 8, after which the chickens can all come home to roost.

The joys of spam

You know what’s wrong with the world today? Spam doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

I first checked my spam comments folder because I’d read that legitimate comments sometimes get dumped there, and I found a few and dug them out. But I went back because the true spam comments were wonderful.

Take this one:

“I think about the some hobbits, its a close tie concerning Sam in addition to Pippin upon who changes one of the most.”

Sure. I think about that all the time. I don’t know what I mean by it either.

It rambles on about hobbits a bit longer before it says, with no transition, “This would be a great spot to send out free coupons and discounts, or if you’re just looking to promote your kids disco hall business, you can set up a basic advertisement without any charge.”

My kids? Oh my gawd, do I have kids? Where are they? What school are they in? And when did they go into this disco business? Are they old enough to go into business?

I’ve been a really irresponsible parent, haven’t I?

To make up for it, should I tell them disco’s pretty much over and they should try some other business instead?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: wall pennywort, which has no interest in disco–or business

After disco balls, or halls, or whatever that’s supposed to be, suddenly the comment starts talking about acidic blood blocks, then Hokaido and a Japanese right-hander (no, don’t’ ask me; I’m an innocent bystander here, even if I am an irresponsible parent) Then we’re back to hobbits, briefly, before we’re sitting on a beach making money for doing nothing and starting a business and rectifying complaints and, I think, wearing bright pink lipstick. It ends by saying, “tone down your eye makeup” (always good advice, except when it isn’t; are my kids listening?). The last words are, “visit my site.”

Now here’s what’s fascinating: Somebody—some human mind with set of fingers attached—put this together. What I want to know is how you make this stuff up.

A second comment went from keeping weeds away from the foundation to HR resources (the R in HR stands for resources, so that’s human resources resources) to antivirus software to oil heaters—which may use oil to heat air or heat the oil itself for some other purpose, like throwing off castle walls onto the heads of tourists to remind them what it was like way back when—to turning off your phone. It ended by trying to sell cheap jerseys. Presumably to me, but maybe through me to you. I couldn’t tell.

Is there a template for this stuff? Mention five hot Google search topics, then try to sell something unrelated?

Does it ever work?

A third comment said, “That is why there are different approaches too evalouate and assess the neerd for this therapy in men. love bracelet from cartier.”

A fourth read, “Thanks, Dixie Chick! Michael is indeed innocent. Not only that but he has been coerced by the court and IRS to commit perjury, crimes and frauds ON THEIR BEHALF! But at every turn he has said ‘NO!’ Watch for my next article. Mike is a true hero. hermes kelly 32 handbags imitation for women.”

Who the hell is Michael? Is the rest of the world watching some soap opera that I don’t know about? Does he neerd therapy? Would a bracelet or an imitation handbag help, and if so how? And is it really handbag or just an imitation of a handbag?

In a grocery store in Minneapolis once, I bought something labeled “imitation noodles.” It was kind of dismaying, but I cooked them and we ate them and couldn’t tell them from real noodles. I never did figure out what the difference was.

In case it’s relevant, it was an Asian grocery store and I put the strangeness of it down to translation problems. I’m not sure I’d have forked out money for imitation food that hadn’t been translated.

But back to the comment: Assuming I actually wanted to watch for the writer’s next article, how would I find it since the link is to a site that sells handbags? Or imitation handbags, which is to say bags that are passing themselves off as handbags but may in fact be footbags. Or feedbags. The internet’s a dangerous place and someone’s always trying to pass stuff off as other, more expensive stuff.

Furthermore, why am I being addressed as a Dixie Chick? I don’t sing as well as they do and I’m from New York. Or Minnesota, depending on how you want to count these things, but either way I’m a northerner.

And you start with that chick stuff with me at your peril.

Another comment (at this point we’ll stop counting; I’m not good with heights) asked if I made this website myself, so I’m going to confess: I didn’t. I found it at the back of the refrigerator. I’m not sure who brought it into the house or how long it had been there, but I hate to see stuff go to waste so I used it.

A lot of the comments start with some form of praise. Hell, we’ll almost all read on if someone tells us how clever we are. One of them said, “I thought this post was once great.”

Geez. How are the mighty fallen.

Okay, I had to google that quote because I realized I hadn’t a clue what it’s about or where it’s from. Turns out it’s from the bible and not exactly relevant. It has to do with falling in battle, although I suppose that’s one way of becoming no-longer-great. Kind of an extreme one, and not the one I’d choose, assuming I get a choice, but highly effective.

A final comment (I’ll stop after this; I promise) says, “I see your website needs some unique content. Writing manually is time consuming, but there is solution for this hard task.”

I know. I found that at the back of my refrigerator too. I just open the jar, scrape off the mold, and blog without having to write a word of my own. Or think a single troublesome thought.

Want to bet this is how the spam comments get written?

O brave new world…

(I didn’t need to google that. It is relevant.)

News about the English language

You’ve probably read that English is now the default world language. Well, here’s the proof you weren’t looking for: Birds are speaking it. To each other. Or at least in Australia they are.

Escaped pet parrots and cockatoos have taught it to the wild flocks they join, and the flocks are sitting in the trees chatting away. Not necessarily making anything we’d recognize as sensible conversation, but then humans don’t always make much sense with it either.

A lot of what they say involves swear words.

Well, what did you expect they’d learn from us? Trigonometry?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This petunia does not speak English. Or any other language. Shocking, isn’t it?

But wild birds speaking English is nothing compared to prairie dogs—North American relatives of meerkats—can do in their own language. They describe not only the kind of danger they see but the size, shape, color, speed, and type of predator.

They do that in Prairie Dog, a language that’s only now getting the recognition it deserves.

According to a New York Times article, “The animals could even combine the structural elements of their calls in novel ways to describe something they had never seen before…. Prairie-dog communication is so complex…—so expressive and rich in information—that it constitutes nothing less than language.”

That dumps us right into the thicket of what a language is and whether, as the article asks, language created the mind or the mind created language. I won’t try to find my way through that—there’s a shortcut leading out of the thicket and I’m going to crawl through it. I won’t learn as much as I would if I took the long way, but I won’t get as many thorns in my hide.

Besides, I don’t know enough to find my way through if I go the more interesting way, never mind enough to guide anyone else. If someone does know enough and writes on this, send me a link and I’ll post it. In the meantime, take a look at the article if you’re interested. It’s a fascinating question.

*

You may have already suspected this, but it’s now official: Swearing makes you stronger. A study at Keele Univery, in Staffordshire, has established it. And since Staffordshire is in Britain, it’s legitimate blog fodder, unlike that business about Australian birds and North American prairie dogs.

The test involved repeating either your swearword of choice or a word you might use to describe a table. You know: scratched, wobbly, needing a good wipe with a dishrag that is, ideally, cleaner than the table.

Okay, you now know more about my gift for housekeeping than you were meant to. And that last suggestion isn’t one word, so it probably wouldn’t work.

Whichever group you were in, you had to say the word in an even tone while pedaling an exercise bike for half a minute.

The swearword group generated more power than the table group.

It’s possible that the people repeating “wobbly” were laughing too hard to press those pedals, but if they weren’t and it was a fair comparison, it means that I am very, very strong. Please be impressed. At my size, I don’t get to impress people often.

*

As long as I’m on the subject of language, let’s give a minute to the way a recent newspaper article about eating red meat was written. It said studies have shown “that substituting white meat for red meat reduced the risk of dying from most causes.”

Since I not only don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white meat either, I won’t die from any cause at all. And if swearing turns out to not just make you stronger but also prolong life, I’ll have many extra years to pass on to my friends and readers.

How to buy peace of mind in Britain

Ever feel like you need peace of mind? Well, now you can buy some. The high-end British department store Selfridges (please note: no apostrophe) held a workshop teaching people to relax and reconnect.

Reconnect with what? Themselves, of course. Because they lost themselves somehow. Or their phones lost their signal and when that happens what’s left of the self? And so they turned to a department store to fix the problem. Because stores have stuff. And if you don’t count your self as stuff, maybe you should. Think how much simpler your life would be. So having lost their selves, these people also lost their signals and couldn’t look for the self-stuff they needed on the internet. That forced them back to an older, simpler time.

A vaguely related photo: If this doesn’t bring you peace of mind–or at least remind you what it is–well, I’ve done my best.

Listen, don’t expect me to sort out your every confusion. I’m just some idiot you found on the internet. What do I know? These are highly stressed people. I’m feeling a little stressed here myself, trying to make sense of the latest trends in the culture. I’m guessing these folks have outsourced large chunks of their lives and that creates a kind of disconnect with the world and its physical reality. They’ve probably outsourced their cleaning to cleaning people. Their food comes either pre-cooked or intravenously, so someone else is doing the preparation although they never get to see them and don’t know their names. They barely remember that there’s a someone out there who does this. They think food drops off the trees in this form.

Some of them are so far down that road that they’ve outsourced the effect of gravity on their bodies. They step on a scale and don’t register at all because they have people to do that for them.

People working on zero-hours contracts for multi-national corporations.

What’s a zero-hours contract? That’s a contract that binds the employee to employer while the employer owes zilch to the employee—not even a set number of hours’ work each week. Not even the title of employee, because presto lawyer-o, they’re told they’re self-employed.

The employee (or non-employee) is available when the company needs someone. When it doesn’t, they disappear from the planet and don’t need to eat or pay rent or raise kids, so it’s okay that they’re not getting paid. And it’s all for the greater good, because look how many jobs this creates.

Not jobs you can live on, necessarily, but still jobs. It’s good when people have jobs. We all know that.

(In case you’ve noticed, yes, I do mix the plural with the singular. It’s the simplest way to get around the he/she problem that crops up in English sentences when you’re talking about a person who could, for all you know, belong to either sex. Or, in these interesting times, to neither or both. I’m not mocking, just struggling to get my head around it.)

Anyway, I may be misrepresenting the people who took the class. I wasn’t there and I didn’t meet them. Maybe they were just your average media-obsessed types who are stretched thin trying to maintain what they consider the essentials of a middle-class life, which always lie just a little out of reach, no matter how high their incomes are.

Or, may the god of potato peelings help us all, maybe it’s not about a middle-class life but a middle-class lifestyle. Have I mentioned recently how much I hate the word lifestyle?

There’s a funny thing about the middle-class life. Everyone who isn’t either a gazillionaire or broke defines it as the life they’re living—or trying to live. So if their almost-in-reach middle-class life(style) is someone else’s definition of rich, we shouldn’t be surprised, right?

But I’m off the topic again. Sorry. When I start having too much fun, that’s when I have to worry. What I was trying to say is that of course paying a high-end department store to reconnect you with yourself is part of a middle class life(style). So what we need to focus on is how these stressed-out folks reconnected with themselves.

They peeled potatoes.

Potato peeling as meditation. Hence the god of potato peelings, who doesn’t get a lot of respect these days and is very pleased to be honored once again, however briefly.

The Guardian, which seems to have sent a reporter to the event (several papers covered the story; for all I know, nobody but reporters signed up; or maybe they all used the same story, which they bought from an agency that outsourced it to a freelancer who disappears off the planet when they’re not needed). Let’s start over. The Guardian writes that the event was held in a “conceptual farmhouse” in the store and that participants rang a cow bell to get in. Then they took their shoes off. Anyone who wanted to could stretch out on a straw bed for a nap. The paper didn’t say how many straw beds were available, but it did say that, in keeping with the rustic theme, participants could buy £20 incense sticks (that’s £20 for one, I think—to get to the plural I just used, I assume you’d have to fork out an additional £20) or a £1,000 wooden bowl.

That’s not an exact quote. The snarkiness is mine; the information is theirs.

“It’s about a simple enjoyment and awareness of daily life,” Selfridges’ Creative Director Linda Hewson said.

Yes, that is your grandmother you’re hearing—or depending on your age, it could be your great- or great-great-grandmother. She’s laughing so hard she can’t get a sensible word out.