Translating from English to English: What does pudding mean in Britain?

Almost anyone who knows and loves the English language will agree that it’s mildly insane. Some of us admit that reluctantly and the rest of us think it’s what gives the language its eccentric charm. I’m in the second category, so I’m taking us all to play in a spot where linguistic oddity meets food. 

How far wrong can we possibly go?

Very, but let’s do it anyway. The question of the week is, What are the British talking about when they talk about pudding?

 

Irrelevant photo: a begonia flower

Definitions

As far as I’ve been able to tell after sixteen years of haphazard research, pudding means four very different things in Britain.

  1. Something sweet at the end of a meal. 
  2. Something made with a batter.
  3. Something either sweet or savory (savory being the opposite of sweet) that’s been tied into a cloth and steamed or boiled.
  4. A “sausage-like mass of seasoned mince meat, oatmeal, etc., stuffed into a prepared skin or bag and boiled.” (That’s from the Collins Dictionary.) 

If that last category doesn’t send you running to Lord Google for recipes, I sympathize. It doesn’t sound like my idea of what to cook on a slow Sunday afternoon either, although I’m sure someone will tell me that a mass of seasoned minced et cetera can be delicious, and I’m sure they’ll be right, at least if they’re serving it to meat eaters. I, however, live on raw carrots and the stems of organic herbs, so it’s not for me. Even if I ate meat, though, the word mass is what did me in. Any food writers out there? Put mass on your list of unattractive words.

And speaking of unattractive words…

 

The unfortunate origins of the word pudding

How did two ordinary syllables come to mean so many different things? Etymology Online takes us back to the year 1300, when pudding meant a sausage made of meat, blood, and all sorts of fun things, stuffed into the intestines of a pig, sheep, or other unfortunate, and then boiled. 

That explains meaning number 4, the boiled mass. 

The word may have come from a Germanic word meaning “to swell,” which means it’s related to words for all kinds of unpleasant swellings. But cheer up, it may come have a whole ‘nother source: a vulgar Latin word by way of an Old French word meaning sausage and having to do with animal intestines.

In the sixteenth century, in fact, if you talked about puddings, plural, you were talking about someone’s intestines, so we’ve got a pretty strong set of sausage-y connections here. But in that same century, pudding was slang for vagina. And–not to be outdone–for penis. 

I wouldn’t suggest holding out for any sort of logic there. Slang isn’t answerable to careful reasoning.

And now, let’s drop that thread before we give up on the topic altogether.

 

Moving right along

How did the word  transition from a sausage to a dessert? Well, in Tudor times it wasn’t unusual to sweeten a sausage, and to add dried fruit, and a sweet sausage-y thing is surely a step in the direction of what we know as a dessert. 

Also in the sixteenth century, a pudding became something involving flour, milk, eggs, and maybe some dried fruit. It could still be either sweet or savory. That points us to meaning number 1–dessert. The connection to those sausage-y things is that you could take those floury, milky, eggy things and boil them in pudding bags, because if you’re not going to stuff them into an intestine, you have to hold them together some other way. So that takes care of meaning 3, something tied in a bag and acquainted with hot water. 

 

Yeah, but what about meaning 1?

According to GreatBritishMag, calling something sweet at the end of the meal a pudding has to do with the British class system. 

Everything in Britain has to do with the class system. 

Traditionally, it says, puddings were rustic things eaten by the lower classes–things like rice pudding and (fasten your seat belt) spotted dick.

Yes, spotted dick. It’s a dessert–or a pudding, if you like–and no, you won’t get a funny look or a medical referral if you say you have or want some. 

While the rustic lower classes were eating spotted dick and wondering if anyone would get the joke, the upper classes were eating not pudding but dessert–chocolate mousse, sweet souffles, and that sort of fancified stuff. 

(Truth in blogging paragraph: Dick doesn’t seem to have become slang for penis until the late nineteenth century. EtymologyOnline says, “It has long been a synonym for ‘fellow,’ ” and dates that back as far as the sixteenth century.) 

Forget that, though. Somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure when or how, the word pudding not only jumped classes but appropriated the entire category of sweets-after-a-meal, and ended up being one of the few British words that doesn’t mark a person’s class. (Others in the category are and, of, or, but, and a scant few thousand others.)

Or so say one or two sources. Arguing against them, Country Living magazine lists pudding as upper class and dessert, afters, and sweet (as in (I think), “Should we have a sweet?”) as non-upper class, where they join declasse words such as couch and settee (instead of sofa), pjs (instead of pajamas), and movie (instead of film). Oh, the horror. How could one hold one’s head up–?

Who’s right? I haven’t a clue.

 

So what gets called a pudding?

Just about anything.

Okay, it does have to be edible–no chairs; no bike racks–and (I think) either solid or semi-solid. And it has to have more than one ingredient. I’m sure there are other limits, but hey, I’m a transplant. I’m doing the best I can here, but you wouldn’t want to trust me out of your sight. 

Now that I think about it, you might want to consult somebody sensible about this, and I invite comments on this from both the sensible and the senseless. 

But with that warning out of the way, foods that have pudding in their names include:

Yorkshire pudding. This is a breadlike thing generally served with meat, gravy, and all the sidekick foods. It used to be served before the meal to fill people up so they’d eat less meat. And it’s baked–it used to be cooked under the meat so it soaked up the drippings–not boiled. It lives in the flour-and-other-stuff room of the pudding house.

Christmas pudding. This is a fruitcake, and it’s steamed or boiled. [You’ll find an explanation of why is isn’t a fruitcake in the comments.] It can sleep in the flour-and-stuff room or the cooked-in-a-bag room, depending on the mood it’s in.

Black pudding. This is a blood sausage and it lives in the sausage room.

White pudding. Another sausage, but bloodless. It lives right near the black pudding.

Rice pudding. This has rice, milk, sugar, and whatever bits of flavoring you like to toss in. I learned to make it on the stove (that’s the hob in British), but most recipes I’ve seen in Britain toss it in the oven. Or, okay, slide in in carefully. It lives in the milk-and-bread room, even if it does substitute rice for flour. A starch is a starch.

Toad-in-the-hole. This involves sausages and a milk, egg, and flour batter, so it wanders from room to room at night, dragging its sleeping bag behind it.

Summer pudding. This is made of bread, fruit, sugar, and nothing else. It’s spectacular, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t have a pass to any of the rooms. It sleeps in the hall, mumbling that it was made in a pudding bowl so why’s everyone so mean?

I could go on but we wouldn’t be much wiser. I’ll stop. 

So what do the British call that stuff Americans call pudding?

Nothing. You won’t find it in Britain, so they haven’t given it a name. I’ve seen sites claiming that the British call it custard, but custard’s a whole ‘nother beast.

 

The Black Pudding Throwing Contest

It wouldn’t be right to leave the topic without mentioning the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, held in (you can’t make this stuff up) Ramsbottom in September. Legend has it that the contest dates back to the War of the Roses, when the houses of Lancaster and York ran out of ammunition and started throwing food at each other. 

Legend has it that a lot of legends were made up in the pub, but never mind. The tradition was revived–or started–in 1839 and then re-revived in the 1980s.

The idea is to throw black puddings at a stack of Yorkshire puddings and see how many you can knock down. 

My thanks to The Year without Wimbledon for making sure I didn’t miss this. The information’s spent a long time sitting on my list of topics I never get to. I’m happy to see it fight its way out.

The north-south divide in English history

If you’re in the mood to break England into bite-size chunks, look no further than the handy north-south divide. It’s scored so deeply into the body of the country that you can treat the place like one of those candy bars you’re meant to share with a friend.

You want north or south? Choose carefully, because your fortune will rise or fall depending on which you take.

The north-south divide is not only recognized by Lord Google, it’s the organizing thesis of The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes, which I’ll be leaning on heavily here. Focusing a history so heavily on a single thesis damn near guarantees oversimplification, but it also gives the story coherence, which makes for a readable book. If you’re looking for a manageable, memorable history of England, this one works well.

And in favor of focusing on the north-south divide, it does tangle itself into England’s history, economics, culture, language, and geography, and it influences Britain’s politics to this date.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose-of-sharon.

 

What am I talking about? 

The difference between richer southern England and the poorer north, although when we’re talking about southern England, what we really mean is the southeast, which is in turn heavily weighted toward London and the area that surrounds it. 

Where does the country divide? Draw a line along the River Trent, if you can find it, then extend it to the west coast. Next draw a line along the River Tamar to keep Cornwall out of the discussion and another one down the Welsh border to do the same for Wales. The part of Britain on the lower right is southern England. The part at the top is northern England until you get to Scotland, then it’s not England at all. 

I’d have told you to draw a line along the Scottish border, but it moved around over the centuries and I don’t want you starting any wars. 

Let’s trace the divide through a series of colonizers:

The Romans: The Romans held the island’s richest agricultural land, a.k.a. the south. The division may have been a factor before the Roman invasion, but the thing about people without a written language is that they don’t write, so the pre-Roman Britons didn’t leave us much in the way of detailed history. We’ll skip them.

The Anglo-Saxons: In the 8th century, the chronicler Bede, who may be more recognizable if I call him the Venerable Bede, mentions a division between the north Saxons and the south Saxons. I can’t do much more than nod at that, unfortunately, and acknowledge that the division struck him as worth mentioning. The difference could trace back to the island’s geography or to the Romanization of the south or to both. Or it could just seep out of the rocks. 

The Vikings: When the Vikings shifted from raiding to colonizing, the part of England they colonized was the north, both reinforcing the differences and adding layers of cultural and political spice to the sauce. 

The Normans: When Hawes asks why the Normans, with a small fighting force, were able to not just conquer but hold England, one of the reasons he cites is that the English couldn’t mobilize the whole country against them. There was resistance, but it wasn’t the sort of coordinated uprising that might have succeeded. And so the Normans made themselves lords of both northern and southern England, and they kept their own language, Norman French, which not only separated them from the conquered English but at least for a while united the conquerors. 

 

Language

What about the common people–the English? Some small segment of the Anglo-Saxon upper class became Normanized, and the key to that was adopting the French language. Below that level, commoners spoke English, but by the fourteenth century, northern and southern English speakers could barely understand each other. Hawes quotes John of Trevisa on the subject, and we’ll get to the quote in a minute, but first, John of Who? 

John of Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer’s and not to be confused with John of Travolta, although Lord Google would be happy to take you down that rabbit hole if you’re interested. The J of T we’re interested in came from Cornwall and was a native speaker of Cornish, but his legacy is a body of scholarly work in English–not in Cornish but more to the point not in Latin and not in French. Choosing English over those last two was a radical act.

Are we ready to go on? Let’s do the quote: “It seemeth a great wonder how English, that is the birth-tongue of English men, and their own language and tongue, is so diverse of sound in this island. . . . All the longage of the Northumbres, and specially at York, ys so sharp, slytting, and frotyng, and vynschape, that we southern men may that longage scarcely understonde.”

Please appreciate that comment, because it hospitalized my spell check program.  

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

Lord Google and I are at a loss over what vynschape means, and we’re not doing any better with frotyng, although for no clear reason I have the illusion that I could understand it if I’d just give it another moment’s thought.

The linguistic divide was still holding in 1490, when a northern merchant was becalmed off the Kent coast, in the south. He went ashore to buy supplies, asking in northern English for meat and eggs, “And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.”

Was the aristocracy as divided as the commoners? By the end of the fourteenth century, court life was shifting from French to English, so the power of French to unite the Normans might–and I’m speculating here–have been on the wane. Either way, heraldry divided the aristocracy into Norroy (the northern realm) and Surroy (the southern one), and the aristocratic families built alliances and power blocs based at least in part on geography.

 

Power

Hawes presents the War of the Roses as a particularly bloody outbreak of the north-south divide and sees Elizabeth I as consolidating the south’s rule over the country. One result of this consolidation was that the southern version of English became the dominant one. The first handbook for English-language writers, from 1589, advised writers not to use “the termes of Northern-men . . . nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent.” (George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie

England’s class structure did allow people to move up the ladder, but to do that they needed to speak southern English. Economic, cultural, and political power all wrapped around each other, and around language and geography. 

Let’s fast forward to James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, since after Liz’s death England imported him from Scotland in a desperate effort to keep England Protestant. This meant that, awkwardly, he was ruling two kingdoms, one stacked (at least on a map) on top of the other. He proposed to unite them and make himself the “King of Great Britaine.”

The English elite–for which you can read England’s southern elite–blocked the move. Parliament was by now a force in English politics and inviting Scotland to the party would’ve diluted southern power. 

From there we hit Fast Forward again and stop at the English Civil War, where Hawes sees the geographical divide still at work: The north was resisting rule from the south, and it was ready to make an alliance with the Celts–Cornwall and Wales (I’m leaving Scotland out of the discussion since it pops up on both sides of the war). In this reading, the king and Parliament, along with religious beliefs and demands for equality, aren’t incidental but they were being driven by underlying forces that generally go unacknowledged.

 

Union

When England and Scotland did finally become one country and Daniel Defoe traveled “the whole island of Great Britain,” he treated northern England and Scotland as more or less the same place. England, for him, was effectively the south. 

For a time, the Industrial Revolution changed the calculations. The south still had the richest agricultural land, but the north had coal, and it now fueled industries of all sorts. The northern elite got rich and northern cities got big. The drive to expand the vote was fueled in part by the northern elite’s drive to gain political power that would match to its economic strength. 

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

Hawes talks about the country having two middle classes during at least part of the Industrial Revolution, one in the north and one in the south–and it’s worth mentioning here that the British middle class, especially at the time we’re talking about, sits higher up the social ladder than the American one. The southern middle class made its money in finance and commerce and the northern one in manufacturing. The southern middle class belonged to the Church of England and the northern one tended toward dissenting religions–and since that meant their children wouldn’t be accepted by the elite universities they started their own. 

By the 1850s, though, boarding schools for the middle class were opening. They were modeled on the elite boarding schools and their explicit purpose was to educate the sons of the northern elite to become like the sons of the southern. And it worked. Northern boys picked up the southern accent, learned what clothes would mark them as part of the in crowd, and played all the right sports. Basically, money and the fairy dust of southern culture allowed northerners to move upward. Not to the top rungs of the elite, of course–you had to be born into the right families for that–but to the bottom rungs of the upper rungs.

What the hell, upward is upward, and a lot of people were scrambling for those rungs.

Starting in the 1870s, the southern elite’s accent started to be called Received Pronunciation, or RP, and if you had any sort of ambitions, you damn well needed to sound like it was your natural accent. 

 

RP

In the 1920s, the BBC began broadcasting, and if you couldn’t reproduce RP convincingly, you weren’t one of its broadcasters . At roughly the same time, a report on teaching English in England insisted that all children should learn RP–as a foreign language if necessary.

RP was considered standard English and everything else was a dialect. And in case it’s not clear, dialect was bad. If you wanted to move up the ranks in the armed forces, you needed the right accent. If you wanted to be taken seriously in finance, in business, in education, you needed the right accent. Although as Hawes says, the ordinary English didn’t give a damn, they just wanted to sound like Americans. BBC English was no match for Hollywood films. 

 

Disunion

When Ireland became independent, the arithmetic of north-south power shifted. The Conservative Party’s base was southern England, and although it had opposed Irish independence, once Ireland left the party discovered that it was now easier for it to dominate the House of Commons. Reducing the number of MPs had made its southern base more powerful.

And if Scotland leaves the union–which the Conservatives oppose, at least publicly–they’re likely to find that Parliament becomes even easier to dominate–at least if they can hold onto their southern base. 

Curse tablets in Roman Britain

Britain enthusiastically adopted the Roman tradition of writing curses on lead (or sometimes pewter) tablets. Maybe that tells us something about the British character. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, because lead doesn’t rust, they left us a record of daily life, or of one odd corner of it anyway, that we can snoop around in.

 

How do you write a curse tablet?

There was a formula, more or less, although it was stretched to the point where some tablets had a name and nothing else. Generally, though, you’d start by appealing to a god, because there’s no point in cursing someone unless you can convince a supernatural power to do the job for you. 

After that, the text (as one article puts it) “identifies itself” as a prayer or a gift or a memorandum. That way the god understands that it isn’t an overdue bill or a note from the school saying, “Your kid hasn’t been in class for the past six weeks.” 

Is the god interested yet? If so, you can go on to the next step.

If you’ve ever sent queries to literary agents, the process isn’t that different. You start by making it clear that this isn’t an overdue bill or a letter from the school, then you find some desperate a way to hook their interest, then–

Never mind. We’re off the topic and most of them won’t respond anyway. I should probably have tried lead tablets. If nothing else, they’d stand out.

Irrelevant photo: From the Department of Useful Road Signs comes this beauty.

If you’ve engaged the god’s interest, you can now ask the god to act for you, and you’ll want to name your intended victim. But you won’t want to use the word victim. You’re the person who’s been wronged here. Remember that. All you’re seeking is–um, no, let’s not call it revenge. Let’s say you’re trying to set the world back into its natural order. 

If you don’t know the person’s name, you’ll want to identify them as best you can. One tablet that’s been found says, “whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free.” Another says, “Whether pagan or Christian,” which raises an interesting translation issue, since pagan didn’t start to mean non-Christian until the fourteenth century. 

Once you’ve got your target sketched in, you can talk about the crime, and curse tablets, for whatever reason, lean heavily toward theft. So name what was taken, and possibly the place where it was taken. 

Then you get to the important stuff: What are you offering the god in return? Because even gods have to make a living. One tablet that’s been found offered half the stolen money. Another offered a third. 

Once you’ve made your offer, it’s time to talk about what you want the god to do to your target. Most people asked for the thief to suffer so much that he or she would pay back what was stolen, and a lot of the suffering they requested involved health. One tablet asks for the target’s (as the article I found this in puts it) “bodily functions to cease from working” Another asks that the thief “not eat, drink, sleep, sit, lie, defecate, or urinate.” 

But if you like, you can stop fooling around and ask that they just go ahead and die. It’s your curse tablet. Most of us don’t believe in this stuff anymore, so you don’t need to act responsibly.

Of course, if the thief returns your property to the temple, all this horrible stuff stops and you give the temple whatever you promised the god. Because gods need intermediaries, and temples are good at that.

Not everyone who wrote a curse tablet wanted a happy outcome, though. One tablet said the thief would have to sell 8.6 liters (that would’ve been a modius) of “cloud and smoke” to break the curse. Which isn’t easy in any age. 

A warning: As a general rule, if you’ve asked for the thief to die you won’t get your property back.

 

Once you’ve written your curse, what do you do with it?

First, you’ll want to either roll your curse up or fold it so that only the god can read it. Or archeologists from later centuries–they seem to manage. Which may demonstrate that they’re gods. 

You can also pierce your curse with nails. I’m not sure what that demonstrates, but it’s a nice bit of drama.

Then you can leave your curse at a temple or in a spring or river, or you can bury with some dead person who’ll be happy to deliver it, since they’re headed off to lands where, presumably, the gods have registered their mailing addresses.

Okay, burying tablets with the dead was rare in Britain but it wasn’t uncommon in the Mediterranean. Still, if you really, really want to do it that way, there is a precedent.

You can also bury it in a house or a shop. Or if you want your enemy’s chariot to wreck during a race, you can bury it in the amphitheater. Or since we’re using the present tense here, you can bury it at a busy intersection.

 

What do we learn from curse tablets?

We learn that a lot of stuff got stolen, and that a lot of it was stolen from the public baths. The sample may be skewed, though, by a collection of tablets that were found in Bath. That’s a British city with a hot spring where the Romans built–yes, you guessed it–baths. The local god was a combination of the Roman Minerva and the pre-Roman Sulis, and the spring became a popular place to leave curse tablets.

The Bath tablets leave me thinking that in an age before lockers were invented, people lost a lot of belongings at the baths. 

Admit it: You’d wondered about that, didn’t you? Here’s a place where everyone shucks off their clothes and jumps in the water. And what happens to those clothes while no one’s inside them? Does anyone look after them?

And while we’re wondering, didn’t the victims of those thefts feel a bit naked walking home without them?

But it wasn’t just clothes that got stolen. It was also  jewelry, gemstones, money, and household goods. 

Who brings household goods to the baths? I don’t know. Maybe Sulis’s sacred spring had become known as a place to deal with theft in general, not just theft from the baths. 

We also learn about the languages that were spoken in Roman Britain, because although some of the tablets were written by specialists many were scrawled by ordinary people, using whatever language or mix of languages they spoke, because the Roman conquest didn’t wipe out Britain’s Celtic languages, it just added some new ones: Latin, predictably, but also Greek and the assorted languages of other Roman provinces. From the continent came Germanic and Celtic languages (there were multiples of both); from the Mediterranean came Semitic languages (anyone ever heard of Palmyrene?). 

These all left their traces on curse tablets.

The Bath tablets date from the second to fourth centuries, and most were in British Latin, showing the places where it diverged from Latin Latin–the words it had incorporated from other languages, the places where the grammar and spellings had wandered off in new directions. 

Two tablets that have been found used Latin letters to write in a Celtic language, possibly Brythonic, the language of one of the two Celtic groups that settled in Britain. Brythonic’s believed to have been an unwritten language–except, presumably, for these lone curse tablets. Another tablet used the Greek alphabet to write in Latin, possibly because Greek added a bit of extra magic to the words. 

If you really want a bit of magic spin, though, you can write your tablet back to front, as some people did. It’s no trouble for a god to read that, but it does make the archeologists work for their pay.

The tablets also show that it wasn’t just priests, scribes, and the upper classes who wrote Latin. Or who wrote at all, although a few tablets have been found with scratches that imitate writing–presumably made by people who couldn’t write but spoke the curse as they made the marks

 

Cursive

The scripts that people used on the tablets varied, but most were written in–yup–cursive, an everyday script used for documents and letters, which is–to simplify a bit– the ancestor of modern European handwriting. The words were rarely separated, although breaks between them were sometimes marked with points–and sometimes weren’t. 

Punctuation wasn’t a major issue for either gods or scribes.

To my disappointment, the word cursive has nothing to do with the word curse. It’s from the Latin word for to run: The letters in cursive handwriting run together. The origin of the word curse is uncertain. It’s late Old English, and there’s no similar word in Germanic, Romance, or Celtic languages. 

Fun with the pandemic: It’s the update from Britain

What could possibly go wrong when they reopen England’s schools? Well, they may be short of 6,000 buses. If so, the problem will hit kids who get to school on public transportation. Some bus companies reduced the number of buses on their routes when the pandemic hit, and social distancing will reduce capacity even further.  

Just to make this more fun, no one knows where the shortages will be. Some councils (that translates to local governments) are putting on kids-only public buses. Others are installing dart boards and using the tried-and-true method of having a blindfolded, socially distanced elected official throw a single dart. If she or he misses the board, no extra buses will be needed.

Bus companies got extra funding to ride out the pandemic (if you’re American, fasten your seat belt, because the language is going to get bumpy), but coach companies didn’t. 

Irrelevant photo: Morris dancers. Because what could be more fun that putting on a costume and whacking at one stick with another stick? This is from way before the pandemic, when people–yes, really–did stuff like this. 

What’s the difference? A bus runs a local route in a metropolitan area. A coach runs between cities. Or internationally. Possibly interplanetarily. But it’s still, physically speaking, a bus. Or so says Lord Google, although he doesn’t mention the interplanetary routes. Only a few of us know about them. We scoop up hints from the far corners of the internet and piece together the patterns.

Coaches are largely for privately chartered trips. 

Let’s review that: A bus is not a coach. A coach is a bus only different. And a couch is neither.

You’re welcome.

Why do we need two separate words? So that we’ll know who not to fund, silly. Also to confuse Americans who pretend to know something about Britain but understand less than they think they do. I don’t promise that I got the definitions right. What I can tell you with authority is that there is a difference and that it’s a mystery tightly held by people who descended from the Druids and who still know some of their secrets.

What do coaches have to do with the problem of kids getting to school? Some school districts may have to hire coaches to pretend they’re buses. But by November, the best data-driven dartboards predict, 18,000 of the 42,000 people working in the coach industry will be out of jobs and nearly 16,000 coaches will be off the roads. That’s something like half the UK’s fleet.

See lack of funding, above.

The Department of Education has issued guidance to local authorities saying that “at least 50% of journeys to school of two miles or less” need to be done on foot or by bike to leave space on the buses for longer trips.

And they’re going to convince the kids to do that how, exactly?

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Another unexpected result of the pandemic has been that cooks are turning back to canned food. Or as they put it here, tinned food. When the pandemic and panic buying rode into Britain like two lonely horsemen of the apocalypse, canned tomatoes disappeared off the shelves as quickly as toilet paper. 

No, sorry, I don’t have the recipe.

Sales of canned food went up 72.6% in March. That’s compared to March of 2019. 

So what are the canned-food companies doing? Kicking off a canned food festival on Instagram, dragging in TV chefs with Michelin stars to convince us that a curry involving canned spinach, potatoes, and chickpeas is a good idea.

I’ll go as far as the chickpeas. After that, I’m outta here. 

To be fair, they’re urging people to donate to food banks, so I can’t make fun of them too much.

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The pandemic hasn’t sent Britain back to the age of Victorian prudery, but the country does have a new set of guidelines on how to shoot sex scenes. It comes from Directors UK and it’s about how to handle “nudity and simulated sex.” I recommend paying attention, because you can never predict when you’ll be called on to deal with simulated sex. If I’d known when I was twenty–

Nah, we’ll skip the details. I could’ve spared myself no end of awkward situations.

What are the directors going to do? Well, for one thing–and I know this will shock you–they recommend looking at scripts to see if sex scenes couldn’t be replaced with emotional intimacy. 

See? I told you you’d be shocked.

They recommend looking at some of the classics (Casablanca’s mentioned) to see how sexual tension can be built without the flapping breasts that are generally thrown in as a quick and easy substitute.

They also raise the possibility of actors quarantining for two weeks before shooting a sex scene or using real-life partners. In case emotional intimacy’s too much work and the flapping breasts are absolutely necessary.

In Australia, a long-runnnig soap, Neighbours, has started shooting again. Actors keep a meter and a half apart and (you’d guess this, since it’s not practical at that distance) there’s no kissing. 

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Facial recognition technology is having a hard time telling the difference between a person wearing a mask and a spoof of a face. That made the news because shoppers who use it to pay for things with their phones are either having to take their masks off or enter a code instead, but the CCTV cameras of the world are having a quiet breakdown in a back room somewhere. Their failure rate ranges from 5% to 50%.

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Since the organization that will replace Public Health England is being handed to the person who set up England’s world-beating test and trace program, I can’t let you go without an example of test and trace success:  An anonymous tracer writing in the Guardian says, “I was hired as a contact tracer in the north-west of England at the end of May. . . . 

“In 12 weeks I have not made a single call, despite working 42 hours a week. . . . We have a WhatsApp group comparing notes with other call handlers and quite a few haven’t had even one job. . . . 

“Given that the north-west has seen some of the biggest spikes in infections, you would think we would be busy. . . . 

“Despite not being allocated any cases in three months, I was offered an extension on my contract this morning.”

Outsourced tracing companies have missed 46% of contacts in the hardest hit parts of England.

It’s all good though. 

Comparative swearing and the regulation of language

I’ve lived in Britain for fourteen years, but you (or at least I) don’t stop being an outsider just because time’s passed. What I’m working toward telling you is that after all those years and in spite of heroic efforts, I still don’t know–never mind use–all Britain’s available swear words. 

Back in 2016, the Independent offered help to people like me, reporting that Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, interviewed 200 people about what they found offensive and then sorted the words into 3.2 categories, mild, medium, and strong, with a small subset of very strong.

If the list was published in 2016, it’s not exactly news, but I just found it and I’d bet a batch of brownies that not a lot of you will have seen it either. 

If you took that bet, you can either fax me a batch or send them as an attachment.

Irrelevant photo: I don’t remember what this one’s called. It’s a flower. It’s blue.

Ofcom isn’t necessarily recommending the words to us, just thinking through what can be used on the air when. 

It defines mild swear words as words that are okay to use around kids, so they’re not banned before 9 pm, when a great national gong sounds and all the kiddies are chased to bed lest they hear something terrible. 

The moderate words might or might not be acceptable before 9. That’s not a whole lot of guidance if you’re the person who’ll catch hell for making a provocative decision, but on the other hand it allows you all the wiggle room you could want. 

The strong words can be used only around people who stay awake after 9 pm, which some nights leaves me to provide my own damn swear words. 

What Ofcom was doing, I gather, was updating its list and checking it against the latest cultural shifts. If you want the full list, you’ll have to follow the link, but I’ll give you a few highlights:

In the mild category, I found ginger. That’s what they call redheads here, and I do know that the culture has a thing about redheads, although I don’t know why. My best guess is that it has something to do with Norman (or Anglo-Saxon–what do I know?) dominance over the Celts, who cling stubbornly to their habit of producing redheads. A culture’s dominant group always finds reasons to look down on the people they’re dominating. So ginger as an insult? Yup, there we go again.

But let’s be clear, I’m putting together two bits of information that may not want anything to do with each other. Take my explanation with a grain of salt. Or a full teaspoon.

What other insults are mild? Damn. Sod off. God. Cow. Arse. 

I’ll stop here so I can explain, for the sake of anyone who isn’t British, that the cow on that list isn’t an animal in a field that says “moo.” It’s an insult applied to a woman–especially, Lord Google tells me, one who’s stupid or unkind. It also falls into the category (I think–remember, I’m an outsider here) of mild or everyday sexism, although it’s used by both men and women.

The “I think” in that last sentence is only about the idea that it’s mild, not that it’s sexist. There’s always a way to insult you if you belong to the nondominant group.

As for arse, it’s the part of your anatomy that you sit on. Why it has an R when the one that Americans sit on is R-less and generally spelled differently I don’t know. Possibly to distinguish it from an animal that stands in a field, is able to carry burdens or pull things, and isn’t a horse, although Americans use the same word for both and for the most part know which one they’re talking about.

When I came to the medium-strength list, I started finding words I don’t recognize: bint, for example, and munter.

On the strong list, I found beef curtains, bloodclaat, flaps, punani, and clunge. The internet being what it is, I could look them all up, but I suspect I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t. And I don’t need to know. The reason I haven’t heard them isn’t because my friends don’t swear (although, now that I think about it, not many of them swear as much as I do) but because they don’t swear with these particular words. Maybe the words are falling out of use and maybe (medium range or not) they’re disgusting, so my friends are boycotting them. 

We’ll leave that as just one more mysterious thing about Britain. 

In the U.S., it’s the Federal Communications Commission that decides what’s allowed on the airwaves. Back in prehistory, I hosted a radio call-in show and we worked with a list of seven words that would break the airwaves if we said them, and before we went on the air I recited them sweetly so guests would know what to not say. 

Okay, not sweetly. I never could do sweetly and I never much wanted to. I recited an unemotional and absurd string of forbidden words. But it wasn’t an official list. The FCC never supplied us (or anyone else) with one. We were relying on comedian George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven words that you couldn’t say on TV. It didn’t have FCC approval, but it was as good as anything else. 

After a while I could only remember five. And I’m not sure they were the same five each time. I could’ve substituted a couple of random choices, but five was enough to sketch out the territory. We were working on a seven-second delay and I never had to bleep any a guest, although I did bleep a caller or three.

The FCC, like Ofcom, sorts what you can’t say into three categories, but they’re not the same three (or three point two). “Obscene content,” the FCC website says, “does not have protection by the First Amendment. [That’s the U.S. Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.] For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a ‘patently offensive’ way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

You want to know this stuff, right?

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

“Profane content includes ‘grossly offensive’ language that is considered a public nuisance. . .  .”

There’s something inherently absurd about sitting down to sort this stuff into boxes, isn’t there?

Sorry. I’ll shut up and let the FCC finish.

“Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

What we learn from this is that American kids stay up later than British kids.

But how do you figure out what word goes in which box?

“Determining what obscene, indecent and profane mean can be difficult, depending on who you talk to,” the website admits. 

“In the Supreme Court’s 1964 landmark case on obscenity and pornography, Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote: ‘I know it when I see it.’ That case still influences FCC rules today, and complaints from the public about broadcasting objectionable content drive the enforcement of those rules.”

Then they run out of the room and leave you to figure out what you’re going to do.

When I was hosting the radio show, websites didn’t exist. No one handed me FCC guidelines and I didn’t think to search them out. George Carlin was as accurate as anything that came to hand, and having read the guidelines I’d say he probably still is.

*

If you’ve been around here a while, you will have figured out that I don’t offer advice on relationships, weight, or money, which are the only three things people truly want advice on. I don’t assume you’re trying to improve yourself and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help if you were. But I’m about to give you one bit of advice on a topic that no one asks about: swearing. Here it is: Don’t use swear words you don’t understand. It won’t end well. 

If you have to look one up, if you can’t hear all its echoes and implications, you don’t understand it.

In fact–more advice coming–don’t use non-swear words you don’t understand. A philosophy professor once told me about a student paper that read, “When we consider the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

You won’t find me calling anyone a clunge. I’m not even sure it’s a noun.

A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

British cops and courts are–no surprise here–having a hard time keeping up with urban slang, which changes fast enough to baffle the people it’s meant to baffle. And cops and courts are, predictably, high on the list of baffle-targets.

So who do they turn to? A linguist who’s compiled a dictionary of what academics call MLE, or multi-ethnic London English, which has jumped the M-25 (that’s a highway that encircles London) and spread to the rest of the country.

The linguist, Tony Thorne, describes himself as an elderly white guy–by age and profession, an outsider–and despite saying that there are gaps in his knowledge he’s on a list of translators hired by the courts. The other people on the list translate from and to languages like, say, Polish or Hindi. He translates from MLE, and he’s done it for defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: a camellia.

Thorne said, “I am trying to help by defending kids who are wrongly accused by their language and go after the people who have committed violent crimes.”

What he does is translate lyrics, messages, and that sort of thing. What he doesn’t do is sit between two people telling each one what the other one said.

MLE mixes (and here I’m quoting not Thorne but the article where I learned about him) “white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish.”

MLE, Thorne said, “has a social and cultural power and is evolving in a way most slangs aren’t. It points up the real diversity of Britain and it is not ghettoised ethnicity. The theorists call it super-diversity.”

To translate that (I can, if highly motivated, which I’m usually not, translate from academese), it’s alive and changing and it’s used by people from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Like many–maybe all–slangs, the purpose of MLE is to keep the authorities out while the insiders communicate with each other. Changing quickly keeps the boundaries between the two groups relatively solid.

That follows a rich tradition. Cockney rhyming slang developed an inspired system of keeping the boundaries solid. It rhymes a word–say, feet–with a phrase: platters of meat. Then (most of the time) it drops the rhyming half of the phrase, leaving just platters. If you don’t know what it means, you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says it was developed by street traders, beggars, and petty criminals in the first half of the nineteenth century. The website Cockney Rhyming Slang sticks with the more respectable people on the list, mentioning the street traders and leaving everyone else out. Take your pick.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang have been swept into the more general language and are still in use, so that a neighbor greeted me one winter morning by saying, “It’s parky,” which comes from parky in the mould–cold.

Predictably (and probably satisfyingly) enough, I said, “It’s what?”

Another slang, Polari, was used from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It was made up of Italian, Occitan, French, Romany, Yiddish, rhyming slang, backslang (where you pronounce words as if they were spelled backwards), and possibly a few other bits and pieces.

It started in pubs near the London docks and was picked up by sailors in the merchant fleet. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was used primarily in gay pubs, on merchant ships, and in the theater, and if you think that’s an odd mix of people and places, you don’t know your gay history. It was also used by lesbians, circus people, and prostitutes. And–well, different sources will add different groups to the list, but you get the drift.  Marginalized people. People who had reasons to want to talk to each other openly and secretly, both at the same time.

Polari began to die out after homosexuality was partially (and later fully) decriminalized, which is also when gay liberation began championing openness. It wasn’t needed anymore.

An older slang, thieves’ cant, may date back to the 1530s and was used by criminals. Or criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. Or–well, somebody. Outsiders forming an in-group that keeps respectable people out. It all gets a little hazy, though, because the only record we have comes from the kind of respectable people who wrote stuff down and whose writings got preserved. In other words, what we know about  it is second hand and comes from writers who looked down on cant speakers. And were fascinated by them. And may or may not have known what they were talking about.

Enough respectable people were fascinated that canting dictionaries were popular. The language made its way into literature and plays. But a WikiWhatsia entry raises the question of how well the written version of the language matched the language used on the street.

“A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.”

It’s a lost bit of history that we can’t reconstruct, but we can know, at least, that it was there. It’s a bit like archeology. You find these bits and pieces. You can make educated guesses, but the world that made them is gone. You can’t be sure you’re right.

Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

Float around the internet for long enough and you’ll find Americans asking what the British think of the U.S. Or what the English think of it, because a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place. And in their defense, it’s not easy when a country has overlapping names and when American history textbooks start out by talking about England, then swap that for Britain without bothering to tell anyone why they’ve done it or what the difference is.

On top of which–let’s be honest here–my beloved country does cultivate a powerful strain of ignorance about the outside world.

So you might expect that people calling their country by the wrong name would get a mention when the British form their opinions of the United States. And you might be wrong about it. Here’s the real, unvarnished truth, direct from a neighbor, Melanie, who was in the U.S. recently and posted the following on Facebook.

Observations about America:

  • Your breakfasts are excellent.
  • Your supermarkets are something else.
  • People really are super nice.
  • Roads are easy to drive on.
  • But where the fuck has the bottom part of your toilet stall doors gone?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, added for the sake of balance.

If she’d asked me about the U.S. before her trip, I wouldn’t have mentioned toilet doors, but the Rapid Response Team here at Notes has come to work early on a Wednesday morning to explain the question, research the answer, and then shut down the computer and make an American breakfast. Then it’ll go back to bed, because this isn’t going into print for several weeks. The Rapid Response Team isn’t in charge of scheduling. Once it responds, it hands things over to the Pokey Publishing Team.

But to Melanie’s question: There is no secret location where the bottom part of toilet doors get dumped. They were never there to start with. 

The doors on American public toilets start–and I’m guessing at the measurements here–some 12 inches above the floor. They’re low enough to cover the relevant body parts but high enough to show the user’s feet and ankles, with a fair bit of leg attached. They’re high enough for the average adult to slide under. And, although Melanie didn’t mention it, they don’t go anywhere close to the ceiling. The dividers are roughly the same height.

What about British toilet doors? They’re doors. And the walls are walls. They may not go quite all the way to the ceiling, but they go high enough to give the user a comfortable illusion of privacy.

Before we go any further, let’s figure out what we’re calling the walled-off area around a toilet. Is it a stall or a cubicle? Divided by a Common Language (an authoritative site kept by a linguist) says the British call them cubicles and the Americans call them stalls. I’d been calling them cubicles and figured I’d slipped into British usage without noticing it. I’ve lived in Britain for–good lord, I think it’s twelve years now. I don’t think my accent’s changed, but a few words have walked out on me and their British twins have replaced them. It’s not what I want–as a writer, I’d like to sound like I’m from some geographical part of this planet, not a mix-and-match of several–but it does happen.

Then I reread Melanie’s comment and noticed that she wasn’t saying cubicles but stalls. Did Divided get it wrong? Did those breakfasts lure Melanie into using American English? Do different classes in Britain use different words for the spaces that enclose toilets? For that matter, do different regions of the U.S. call them different things?

Good questions. I can’t answer any of them.

Divided does point out that in the U.S. a cubicle is a semi-open bit of office space marked off by movable dividers. The British call that an open-plan office. In British English, stalls are a category of theater seats or what someone sets up in a market to sell stuff. In American English, those are called–um, something, but I don’t know what. In a market, stands, probably. In a theater? I still haven’t figured out what the stalls are, so I’m not much use with that.

But back to toilet doors: When I was in grade school–American grade school corral kids from roughly age six to twelve, keeping them off the streets and giving them the illusion of something useful to do–some percentage of the kids thought it was a great idea to climb on one toilet and look over the divider at the person sitting on the one next to it. Or–before they grew tall enough to look over the dividers–to lie on the bathroom floor and look under the door. Or to lock the door from the inside, slide under the door, and toddle merrily off to class, leaving the janitor to slide under and unlock it. If the janitors in your school weren’t the friendliest people in the building, this might explain why.

And that was the girls. I can only imagine what the boys got up to.

In I can’t remember what grade, some kid asked about the doors, the dividers, the general openness of the cubicles. Whatever teacher we had that year told us they had to be that way in case someone got stuck in one. And I believed that until recently. Because a teacher said it and teachers know these things. 

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a desperate grab for some sort of logic in a logic-free zone. Imagine that you’re teaching a class of, let’s say, fourth graders, kids who are roughly 9 and 10 years old, and in the middle of a class about volcanoes or the Louisiana Purchase one of them asks about toilet doors. You don’t feel free to say, “How should I know? We’re talking about magma.”

Or maybe you would, but this particular teacher didn’t. She or he (I’m damned if I remember which but I’m pretty sure it was one of the two) gave us an answer, and even if it was a complete on-the-spot fabrication, we believed it. Because it came from a teacher.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I should have thought to question.

So what’s the real answer to why American toilet doors are so sketchy? It’s probably not so rescue crews can extract kids from toilet stalls where they have, with the the predictable unpredictability of kids, locked themselves in. Or extract adults who’ve collapsed from heart attacks, strokes, or overdoses.

It’s probably also not so Woman A can ask Woman B in the next stall if she has paper in there because Woman A just discovered that her stall doesn’t have any. That happens, and it’s handy, but it’s an effect, not a cause. I don’t know if men do that. I suspect not, because in researching this post (in case you think reading this stuff is weird, you should just try writing it) I read several comments from men who say that men don’t talk to each other in what Americans call restrooms and the British call toilets. Women do. I’ve had some short but memorable conversations with strangers in them.

I might as well take this opportunity to say that Americans, despite the openness of the walls in their public toilets, don’t like to be reminded of what we’re doing there and go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets. We’ve created plenty of euphemisms–restrooms, ladies’, gents’, the facilities–but the most generic word, I think, is bathroom, although even that has a bit of an unpleasant ring. That’s the problem with euphemisms. Eventually you figure out what you’re talking about and after that bathroom sounds too much like toilet and you end up asking for the little girls’ room.

And yes, it’s odd that a culture so phobic about calling a toilet a toilet leaves the user in not-quite-public view. I’m not even going to try to explain it. The way adults handle it is to pretend we don’t see them.

In Britain, the generic word for toilet is toilet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. Ask where the bathroom is in, say, a cafe and you get a strange look. It’s also called the loo if you’re either polite or a bit fussy. Or–well, I’m an immigrant here. I don’t understand the resonances. Like most things in Britain, what word you use has to do with what class you come from or what class you want to sound like you belong to, and it might have a layering or regional difference on top of that. I don’t expect to ever get the subtleties right. 

So in the journalistic tradition of using multiple sources–we want to be sure something this important is accurate, don’t we?–I googled toilet-door-related topics and found an assortment of comments from shocked Brits. Some were worried about the gap at the bottom and others about the gaps on the sides of the door, which are variously described as a quarter of an inch wide, a full inch wide, or the width of a finger. Whose finger? Which finger? I live in Britain and can’t go to a random selection of American restrooms to see if Cinderella’s glass slipper fits between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame. There’s a gap. That’s all we really need to know.

In addition to shocked comments, I found a selection of explanations for why the doors are the way they are, including that they make the floors easier to clean, that they discourage drug taking and sex, that they’re cheaper, and that anyone passing out in one would be easier to see,  although that assumes they’re clever enough to fall on the floor instead of staying seated.

A few people (including one architect) commented that the more money the users of an American restroom are likely to have, the more privacy they’re likely to find. Now that, unlike the British signals of class, I understand.

My best guess is that the doors are the way they are because they are the way they are. Some things in a culture can be explained. American racism? Go back to slavery and it all begins to make sense. The British gift for not learning languages well? The place has been an island since its early in its pre-history, and on top of that it had an empire so it could convince (or force) other people to learn English. American toilet doors, though? They started that way and so they continue to be that way.

There is a downside to British toilet doors. I know two people who’ve gotten locked in toilets, one child and one adult. It took a bit of work to get them out, but both were  extracted after a bit of pounding and yelling. I also know a woman who got locked in a toilet cubicle at the Vatican. It took so long to get her out that when she finally walked free she announced that she’d been beatified.

*

My thanks to Melanie for letting me quote her. I don’t suppose I’ve been helpful, but I’m glad to hear people were nice over there. And the breakfasts? They really are wonderful.

 

Teaching English to the English

This is a multiple choice test. Circle one answer. Circling more than one answer will cause a nuclear explosion. How is English taught in England?

(A)  Meticulously

(B)  Fussily

(C) Ineffectively

You are free to choose an incorrect answer, but be aware that your choice will follow you for the rest of your school career.

Time’s up. Please hand in your papers.

No, you cannot change your answer. Your papers will be returned to you the end of this post. Marking has been outsourced to the London Zoo, since capuchin monkeys working on zero-hours contracts are a cost-effective alternative to humans, and considerably less troublesome.

Totally irrelevant photo: a camellia.

While they’re working, let’s explore the subject to help you understand why your answer was wrong. It’s too late to help on the test but it will let you contemplate your mistakes in glorious detail.

Americans—and for all I know people from all non-British countries—tend to assume that British kids get a better education than kids in other countries. I got that impression knocked out of my head a few years after we moved to Britain, when we helped a kid study for her GCSE (a standardized test) in American history. Some of what she had to memorize was inaccurate. Some of it was true enough but pretty much irrelevant to the flow of American history. All of it had that random-collection-of-facts quality that made my own junior high and high school history classes so snorably pointless and guaranteed that tests were damn near impossible to study for.

That complaint, by the way, comes from someone who did well in history, in spite of snore-inducing textbooks. I only mention that so I don’t sound like a disgruntled non-employee. I’m fascinated by history, which is why I’m outraged at the way it’s taught.

But we’re supposed to be talking about how English is taught.

A year or two after we were introduced to the official English version of American history, the girl’s brother was studying a few chapters of Dickens for his GCSE in English. Not the whole book. Maybe the national curriculum didn’t allow time for an entire novel, maybe kids that age can’t be trusted with too many words, and maybe the Department for Education didn’t see the point of reading a whole novel when, after all, it was only a bunch of stuff Dickens made up. Your guess is as good as mine. What I do know is that the kids were supposed to put miniature samples of Dickens under the microscope and obsess over them.

They will, forever after, hate Dickens.

Okay, I’ve mentioned the national curriculum, so I should explain. We’re talking about England’s national curriculum: not Scotland’s, not Wales’s (or Wales’ if you like), not Northern Ireland’s.

The national curriculum was introduced in 1988, with the intention of making sure every child in a state school got the same standard of education. Or, depending on who you listen to, it sets a minimum standard. A 2008-9 report from a House of Commons committee says it accounts for–and I’m paraphrasing–every blessed second of teaching time in every year, so there’s no time for improvisation, responding to the students’ interests, or taking off on an inspired riff. Because everything will show up on a standardized test and the entire staff of any school with too many kids below average will be fed into a shredder.

All students are expected to test well above average. *

Okay, the report doesn’t exactly say that. It does say, “At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed-down by Government rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers.”

Once the national curriculum was established, every government that came into power has fiddled with it, but the fiddler-in-chief was Michael Gove, who was so popular as education secretary that teachers celebrated when he lost his job in 2014.

He moved into another post, but his nit-picking continued to make good headline fodder. He’d been in the Ministry of Justice for two months when he posted a set of instructions to civil servants warning them not to use impact as a verb and to spell out does not instead of using a contraction.

“The phrases best-placed and high-quality are joined with a dash, very few others are,” he announced, splicing together two sentences that should have had a semicolon or a period between them and not bothering to either italicize or put quotation marks around the phrases in question. And, gee, that’s not a dash, Mike, it’s a hyphen.

The article where I found the quote goes on to say that he “also disapproves of ‘unnecessary’ capitalisations and the word ‘ensure’, which his civil servants must always replace with “make sure.’ ”

But we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the trail of scent Gove left as he wandered through the high-end jobs of Conservative politics. You know how easily I get distracted. Why do you bring these things up?

The incident that drew my attention to how English language skills, as opposed to English literature, are taught was a neighbor’s Facebook comment that she was struggling with fronted adverbials.

Struggling with what? I asked myself.

Myself didn’t answer. She didn’t have a clue.

I was saved from my ignorance by another neighbor, a teacher, who linked us to a post by Michael Rosen that not only explained what they are but why they’re not worth teaching. He didn’t go quite as far as saying they’re not worth knowing about but I doubt he’d argue with me if I said it.

The phrase “fronted adverbial” describes what you’re doing when instead of saying “we left at ten,” you say “at ten, we left.” You moved the adverbial clause from the back to the front.

I’m not sure it’s correct to say “I just fronted an adverbial,” but I did just say it. Or at least I typed it. It wasn’t as much fun as you’d think.

In some sentences, Rosen argues, it’s hard to work out whether the words you just, ahem, fronted apply to the subject (in which case they’re not adverbial) or the verb (in which case they are). What’s more, if you have trouble with figuring out which is which, the fault isn’t yours but the concept’s.

And if you can’t follow any of this, don’t worry, because you don’t need to. This kind of teaching isn’t about writing well, it’s about wriggling your human-shaped brain through Gove-shaped hoops.

Kids, however, are supposed to master it when they’re seven, give or take a few months. And pass a test to prove that they have. They’ll come away thinking that “at ten, we left” is better than “we left at ten.” Why? Because it’s been singled out as something they need to learn. If you can front an adverbial, you’re clever.

Our neighbor is I’m not sure how many decades over seven and I have no idea why she felt the need to get her head around the concept. I was too disoriented to ask.

At (if I remember correctly) the same age, the kids are also supposed to understand—

No, I don’t have the heart to give you the full list. Let’s grab a few terms and then run screaming from the room: determiners; clauses; subordinate clauses; and relative clauses.

Enough. We’re outta here.

Sorry, we’re back. I just found modal verbs. What effect does modal have on verbs? Well, when you stick modal on a clothing label it means the fabric’s a bio-based knit or woven fiber. When you stick it on a verb, it indicates that it’s washable.

Does that help?

Does learning grammar improve kids’ ability to write? According to TES, there’s no evidence to show that it does.

What’s TES? A weekly publication aimed at U.K. teachers. It’s been publishing since 1910 and is so well known that doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the letters of its name stand for, but I sent my spy Lord Google to find out and he tells me it was once called the Times Educational Supplement. 

The TES article doesn’t address the question of whether learning grammar puts kids to sleep in class, but you can bet your fronted adverbials that it does.

So there’s your brief introduction to the teaching of English today. We’ll hand your papers back in just a moment, but I can’t leave without a little more Gove-bashing. According to Zoe Brown in the Independent (the link’s above, under “teachers celebrated”), Gove also introduced “Latin lessons, chanting poetry, British values and children having to identify the past progressive tense before they could identify the UK on a world map. It was out with GCSE drama, dance lessons and To Kill A Mockingbird (because there are no lessons to be learnt from that novel).”

We’ve covered GCSEs, but what are British values? That’s a problem, because when they were first proclaimed to be the schools’ responsibility nobody seemed to be sure, and every politician who stumbled into print on the subject offered a different list, so the Department for Education created its official list of British values, and state schools have to stick their feet into it periodically, like Cinderella’s big-footed step-sisters, to remind themselves what their feet would look like if they were prettier.

Brown writes that Gove is “a traditionalist and an ideologue and his reforms seemed to be a desperate attempt to try and recreate his own education. So it was out with the Year Six Calculator Paper—because really who needs to know how to use a calculator in the 21st century? In with specific formal written methods that Gove himself approved. It wasn’t about teaching children to add and take away it was about teaching them to add and take away the way Michael Gove learnt to.”

He also had a copy of the King James Bible sent to every school, with a special foreword by—yes—his own brilliant theological self. If his theology’s as shaky as his writing, it should make an interesting read.The head teacher in one school (if you’re American, that’s a principal) wrote, “Ours is keeping my office door open as I write. A school where 86 per cent of the children have English as a second or third language and 82 per cent of children are Muslim has surprisingly little use for a King James Bible.”

King James alone knows how much the printing and sending cost.

The monkeys have delivered your papers. The correct answer was A. Those of you who gave the wrong answer are invited to impale yourselves on your number 2 pencils.
———————-
* For the joke followed by the asterisk, I’m indebted to Garrison Keillor for his creation, Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
** A friend and fellow writer commented that my posts have seemed angry lately. Bizarrely enough, I hadn’t noticed. Now I can’t notice anything else. The problem is, I keep reading the newspaper. If I stop being even remotely funny, I trust someone will let me know, because I probably won’t notice that either. You’d be doing me a favor.

Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

What a country compares things to tells us a lot about its culture.

What does it tell us? Damned if I know, but I do know that communication’s going on and I’ll claim a point or two, if you don’t mind, for getting that much right.

So let’s talk about what people reach for when they need an off-the-shelf point of comparison. If we’re talking about size–and we are, otherwise the conversation will be too baggy to manage–the British start with a double decker bus, then move up to a football pitch, which is, if I’ve got this straight, a football field except that the football in question is what Americans call a soccer ball, not what Americans call a football, and the field may be a slightly different size. Still, it’s close enough for all of us to think, delusional creatures that we are. that we’re talking about the same thing.

After the football pitch, the British upgrade directly to Wales, and after that, they stop. Nothing on the shelf is bigger than Wales. If they want something larger, they have to improvise.

What are the standard comparisons in the U.S.? A barn door. The broad side of a barn. (I may be cheating a bit here. This usually shows up as “couldn’t hit the broad side of a…” which isn’t a comparison. Half a point to me for honesty, then take it away for cheating.)

Completely relevant photo: This dog is smaller than a bus. He is also smaller than Rhode Island. He doesn’t actually have green eyes; that’s a spooky flash effect.

If Americans need a point of comparison bigger than that, we have “the size of Rhode Island,” which I should explain for the sake of non-Americans is our smallest state.

Texas used to be our biggest state, but that was before Alaska joined the union. Now it can only claim to be the biggest in the contiguous 48 states and the most blustiferous in all 50. But the things I remember hearing compared to Texas aren’t things that can be measured in miles. You might say, “She has a student loan the size of Texas,” but I can’t remember bodies of water, other countries, or deserts being compared to it

There’s no reason they shouldn’t be, but something about Texas tempts us into off-the-wall (as opposed to off-the-shelf) comparison. And here I really am saying something about the culture behind the comparisons.

My partner’s from Texas, so I don’t say any of this from ignorance. Or by way of complaint. I admire the florid insanity that Texans (forgive the generalization; I’m going to move on now before anyone gets a chance to complain) tap into so gloriously.

I’m from New York originally. We have our own forms of insanity, but they’re not as much fun, and we lean toward the small, being more likely to say, “My first apartment was the size of your average phone booth.”

For anyone young enough to ask, “What’s a phone booth?” I might as well explain that they were booths. Around phones. One phone to a booth. And back when they existed, all phone booths were the size of your average phone booth. They varied about as much as the old black rotary-dial phone. One size fit all. I could add that some New York apartments were smaller than your average phone booth, so whoever’s apartment was the size of one was was living in luxury.

And again, that does say something about the culture. New York’s a big city in a small space. Unless a person’s insanely rich, the amount of space she or he can lay claim to is limited.

The British are fond of reminding people that they’re a small island, although the people–the they in that sentence–aren’t actually a small island. The place they live is. Still, I seem to have always heard it as “we’re a small island.” 

Does it say something about the culture that the people have themselves confused with a chunk of land?

The small island excludes Northern Ireland, which is the smaller part of a different, smaller island. And that means something too, although I might do well to leave it to someone else to explain what, because I’m not at all sure. Any takers?

Soon after my partner and I first moved to Britain, the Guardian newspaper’s letter writers got into an extended discussion about using Wales as a point of comparison. The conversation started in a column that invites readers to ask and answer questions when someone asked, since it was a standard point of comparison, what size a Wales actually was. The discussion went on for so long that the editors moved it out of the column and onto to the letters page.

It’s hard to summarize an exchange of such intricate and admirable lunacy, but one highlight was the suggestion that we should learn from the metric system and standardize the Wales so that it becomes as reliable as a kilometer.

That led someone else to ask if it would be standardized at high tide or low.

As far as I can remember, no one asked, Why Wales? Northern Ireland’s smaller. Scotland’s bigger. England’s bigger still. What part of the British psyche does Wales occupy that people feel this compulsion to compare things to it?

*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer and editor, it’s that as soon as you state that something has three causes, someone will come along and tell you it has four. If you say it has four, someone will pop up with a fifth. So warm up your keypads, kidlets. I’ve missed a point of comparison. Or I’ve missed thirteen of ’em, and that’s not even starting on their implications. This is your invitation to tear up the floorboards. To shred, fold, and staple. (That’s a reference that only makes sense if you’re over a thousand years old. I am. If you’re nice, I might explain it.) Tell me what I’ve missed and what, if anything, it all means.

 

Things that actually happen in Britain

Cold off the British press: Notes from the U.K. proudly presents the following mostly outdated news stories.

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

The British Museum misplaced a diamond ring worth £750,000. It’s not lost, it’s just—oh, you know how this works. Someone put it in a safe place. It hasn’t been seen since. That happens to me all the time, although not usually with £750,000 diamond rings.

In fact, that’s why I don’t buy £750,000 diamond rings. I know what’ll happen to them.

How do we know this happened? Somebody submitted a Freedom of Information request to—I guess—the major British museums, asking what they’ve misplaced, and then counted up the responses. Some 6,000 items became unaccounted for over the past I’m not sure how long, which makes the report of questionable value but hey, here at Notes we don’t really care. And we aren’t really a we. It’s just me here, typing away.

The 6,00 items include a rare piece of quartz, an old washing machine, a tin of talcum powder, and an important black tie.

How important can a black tie be? I wouldn’t know. I suspect you’d have to have owned one before you can make an estimate. That’s why I never have. I’d put it in a safe place with that damned diamond ring and that’d be the end of them both.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: This is a flower. In case you weren’t sure.

 

 

The arts are flourishing

The winner of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize gets £25,000, but the winner of the Turnip Prize gets a turnip mounted on a nail. It’s awarded to the entrant who creates rubbish art “using the least amount of effort possible.” The contest is now in its eighteenth year and is still being run from a Somerset pub.

All the best contests are run from pubs. Or else they start or end in one.

The 2017 contest had over 100 entries but the organizers said proudly that the standard was “still crap.”

Last year’s winner said the contest showed that  “if you set your sights on the gutter and refuse to work hard your dreams really can come true.”

A past entry included a dark pole titled “Pole Dark.” I don’t think it won, which just goes to show you, although I’m not sure what it goes to show you.

I am forever indebted to my friend Deb for calling this contest to my attention.

Water companies use witchcraft

Britain’s a wet country, but every so often people have to search for water anyway. Historically, it was so they could dig wells, but these days it’s also so water companies can find leaks and all sorts of people can locate pipes before they run a digger into them.

Recently, water companies—not all of them, but most—were caught using dowsers, also called water witches, and there’s a predictable flap about it.

Dowsing’s an ancient way of looking for water (or anything else that’s invisible). Traditionally, dowsers used a forked stick. These days, they use a couple of bent wires or metal rods or clothes hangers or tent pegs or—well, you get the idea. When the dowser walks above the hidden water, the wires move toward each other.

Does it work? I’ve never tried. I’m fresh out of tent pegs or I’d go looking for our water pipes. What’s worse, most of our hangers are plastic. Wire hangers are hard to find around here. It’s probably a religious issue because it’s a mystery to me.

What I can tell you is that science blogger Sally Le Page went public about a water company sending a dowser to her parents’ house to locate pipes. Before you could say “superstitious nonsense,” it was in the news. Experts have weighed in to say that it’s not a technique, it’s witchcraft—not in the sense of it being evil but unscientific and silly.

Before this all disappeared from the news, which it did pretty quickly, I listened to a sober BBC journalist interviewing an expert. The journalist happened to have tried water witching and his experience was that it worked—the tent pegs moved strongly toward each other just as he passed over (if I remember correctly) an underground pipe.

The expert talked about false positives. The journalist talked about the feeling of the rods moving in his hands. The journalist was the more convincing speaker.

The regulator (which has no power in this) urged water companies to consider whether dowsing is cost effective, then stuck its fingers in its ears and turned the other way, humming “There’ll always be an England.” The company Le Page challenged said, “We’ve found some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.”

“Just as effective than the new ones”? If they’d like to hire a copy editor, I’m retired but can be called in for small emergencies. For a fee.

I don’t need dowsing rods to tell you that since the flap’s already died down everyone will have gone back to business as usual.

A woman becomes Black Rod

For the first time in British history, a woman’s been appointed as Black Rod.

As what?

Black Rod, who is not to be confused with a dowsing rod. Black Rod’s a person and plays a ceremonial role in the little playlet put on when the queen (or king, when there happens to be one) speaks at the opening of Parliament. Black Rod is sent from the House of Lords to summon the House of Commons. The Commons slams the door in his—or now her—face until he (now she) knocks three times with his (now her) staff, at which point someone opens the door and the MPs troupe out behind him—or now her—like overfed ducklings.

Enough of that. I’m tired of juggling pronouns.

Black Rod also does other stuff, some of which may be perfectly sensible, and dresses in, um, a distinctive get-up.

It’s heartening to know that in this glorious new age we live in women can have jobs that are just as silly as men’s. This isn’t what I hoped feminism would bring us when I was a young hell-raiser, but as Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”

Berra is also supposed to have said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” which is demonstrated by the first quote appearing on the internet in several forms, so I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room. The first quote was originally said, in some form or other, by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who said at least half the things he said.

Apparently.

You probably already know that the next Doctor Who is also a woman.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if someone’s appointed as Black Rod or simply appointed Black Rod, with no as. Maybe you reword the sentence to avoid the issue. But I’m not getting paid to worry about that stuff anymore.

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

Every day, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs goes through 1,400 disposable cups in its restaurants and cafes, which are run by private companies under contract to the department. So it’s good to know everyone’s taking the department’s mission seriously.

The House of Commons went through 657,000 disposable cups last year, but they did their bit by buying 500 reusable cups and selling four of them in the course of three years, so yeah, nothing’s going to waste there.

Based on a survey of one, incompetence may have a genetic component

Britain has a foreign secretary—Boris Johnson—who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth. Or in the case of a woman imprisoned in Iran, who has both British and Iranian citizenship, for putting his foot very dangerously in other people’s mouths. (I wrote this in mid-December and may not get a chance to update it; she was still in prison at that point; it would be nice to think that by she’ll have been released by the time this appears but I’m not putting any money on it.)

Johnson not only said the woman was in Iran teaching journalism, which helped Iran justify her arrest (both she and her family say she was visiting her parents, and she brought her toddler daughter with her, so that seems credible), Johnson refused to retract the statement for a long time, offering a kind of non-apology instead.

I can’t explain Johnson’s political survival, but a recent article about his father reported that Johnson-the-father ran for Parliament in 2005 with election literature that not only misspelled the area he was running in, it used a slogan I love: “More talk, less action.”

He lost.

Still, it’s refreshing, in a stupid kind of way. If we want truth in political advertising. there it is.

Unlike his son, he knows how to back down. He’s quoted as admitting that when he was a spy (sorry—I’m not sure what office he was spying for or who he was spying on) his “incompetence may have cost people their lives.” Which, again, is kind of refreshing in its openness, although it doesn’t bring anyone back from the grave.

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

Guardian letter writers spilled a fair bit of ink arguing about how to pronounce latte, as in caffe latte, as in an expensive coffee drink.

There are two problems involved here: 1. how to pronounce the word to begin with, and 2. how to communicate the pronunciation in print to an English speaker.

And you thought it was just coffee. Silly you. These things are complicated.

I know that: 1. the pronunciation doesn’t really matter as long as people understand you, and 2. the problem could be solved by going online, de-muting the speakers you (or was that me, or possibly I?) turned off to shut up those annoying ads, and then hoping that whoever you’re listening to got it right, which is far from guaranteed. But isn’t it more fun to do it the hard way?

The first way to tell people how to pronounce something is to use specialists’ marks. Caffe latte comes out as kæfeɪ ˈlɑːteɪ. I’m sure the system’s foolproof, but this fool never did learn how to turn the marks into pronunciation. So let’s try method two, which is to rhyme the word or phrase with something else. That’s the method the letter writers used.

The first said latte rhymed with pate, not par-tay.

Par-tay? Is that when you invite a bunch of people over and offer them food and something to drink? Where I come from, that’s a party. There’s no A involved, and no hyphen.

So do I know how to pronounce par-tay? No. It could be par-TAY of PAR-tay. And given that large parts of Britain treat the R as a very shy sound that disappears in company–well, that adds another complication.

The next day someone wrote in to say that in the north they’ve always rhymed latte and pate, reminding us all that accents here change from region to region, making the whole rhyming thing a complete crapshoot.

The day after that, someone said the emphasis belongs on the first syllable anyway, so it should rhyme with satay, not pate. Great, but I thought satay was pronounced sat-AY, emphasis on the last syllable, making it rhyme with the French pronunciation of pate, which is where we came in.

Is this complicated enough for you yet? It not, let me confuse it further. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I think I’ve heard some British people put the accent on the first syllable of pate and others put it on the second, meaning that if you’re using that as your rhyming word, you’re in trouble.

You see the problem here. English is a slippery language.

Take the word skeletal. You’re not going to rhyme anything with unless you’re an expert, but the standard British pronunciation is skell-EE-tl. The American pronunciation is SKELL-uh-tl. If you find a word that rhymes with either version, the comment section is waiting eagerly.

The third way to communicate pronunciation in print is to do what I did with satay: break the word into syllables, capitalize the one that gets the emphasis, and figure out a phonetic spelling for each syllable. It works, but only up to a point. When I had to do it for a series of kids’ books I was working on, I ran into trouble with a few sounds. Some  of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s, but the one that really sank me was the sound at the end of the word garage–unless, of course, you use one of the British pronunciations, which is GARE-idge. It’s a kind of soft G, but–.

Oh, let’s not get into it. We’ll sink. No spelling was foolproof and there’s a whole generation of kids who grew up mispronouncing the vocabulary words they learned from me.

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

Google Maps finds out why crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a good idea

Okay, this story isn’t limited to Britain, but we all know I cheat: Everton football fans went onto Google Maps and labeled a rival team’s stadium “gobshites.”

What’s a gobshite? Gob’s a mouth. Shite is shit. Put them together and you get a stupid or incompetent person, or so the internet tells me. It also swears that shite in Norwegian is shite and that gobshite in Spanish is pendejo, which according to the Oxford Dictionaries literally means pubic hair.

Don’t you learn interesting things here? I’ve wondered about the literal meaning of pendejo for years. Seriously. I have. Why didn’t I look it up? I did, I just didn’t think of typing in “word origin pendejo” until now.

Are you impressed with my intellectual curiosity? I sure as hell am.

In 2015, Lord Google had to close his crowdsourced mapmaking tool when someone added a robot peeing on an Apple logo to a part of Pakistan. In that same year, British sports fans played other shit-related online jokes. It must be a British thing. Sports fans here are a distinctive breed.

In an unstated year, someone labeled the White House entrance hall Edward’s Snow Den.

Google is “understood to be…looking into” the most recent issue. In the meantime, if you want to sneak Boaty McBoatface onto a map, you might still be able to.