How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.

*

Ah, romance: the U.K. letterbox and the U.S. mailbox

Ever since I moved to Cornwall, I’ve been running into people who romanticize the U.S. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it in movies or on TV. Maybe it’s because they like the music. Maybe it’s for reasons I haven’t even guessed at. I spent most of my life the U.S. That makes it hard for me to see the romance.

During Hollywood’s golden age (when that was that? you should know better than to trust me with numbers, so let’s acknowledge the question and skip right on over it), photographers smeared their lenses with vaseline in order to give actresses a golden glow. Or, if you prefer, a nice blurry look. Let that stand as an example of how to romanticize something. You need distance. You need blur. You need vaseline.

I don’t know how they cleaned their lenses, but that’s a different issue.

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. If you know where to look, there's a castle out there. What's more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. There’s a castle just out of sight on the right. What’s more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I don’t know how many people in Britain romanticize the U.S., only that some do. Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is as random as it is unscientific, has never tackled the subject because Hawley can’t figure out what question to ask. Every so often I hear something that files itself under Romanticizing America. That’s the best the survey and I can do.

I do know that people have odd impressions of the U.S. The most common one is that we all live in big houses—either McMansions or the kind of apartments you’d see in a Woody Allen film.

Stop laughing, you Americans, because our images of the U.K. are just as out of kilter. In a letter once, I told a well-read friend in northern Minnesota that a nearby town drew a lot of surfers.

“Surfers?”  she wrote back. Her images of England, she said, came out of Dickens. None of Dickens’ characters owned a surfboard. So what were we doing with surfers?

In fairness, she knew how absurd that was, but knowing a thought’s absurd doesn’t stop it from operating.

And for those of you who know enough not to confuse England and Cornwall, I remind you that when you’re an ocean away, it all gets a little–well, vaseline-y.

My latest (and somewhat questionable) example of romanticizing America came to me as follows: Earlier this week, A. and I were stuffing leaflets through the neighbors’ letterboxes. This isn’t a romanticizable activity. Letterboxes are cleverly designed to keep things out, not invite them in. This is good if you own one, because it keeps the wind from banging the flap around and blowing into your living room. It’s bad if you’re trying to stuff paper through, because as you push the paper in the flap resists with all its inanimate might.

The leaflets were about a massive reorganization of the National Health Service that the government’s forcing through. It will cut services, close some hospitals, and generally make a mess out of things. What sort of nutburger would oppose that? I doubt we’ll be able to stop it, but we can at least make it more difficult. And, if the political winds are kind, build a base to reverse the damage in the future. We’ve organized a meeting in the village where people can learn about it (it hasn’t been well publicized) and (since the farce of public consultation is required) voice their opinions.

A couple of houses from mine, a couple I know, J. and P., saw me coming and said hello.

“Can I just hand you this rather than fighting with your”—and here, if I remember right, I stumbled around a bit, my brain running through post slot and mailbox before I landed on what (I think) is the correct term, letterbox, which I find hard to remember because the object in question isn’t, on most houses, a box but a slot in the door.

If you’ve been around Notes for a while and have a better memory than I do—which isn’t hard—you may remember that we went through this once before. I should know the right word by now. I don’t. Or not with any certainty. I mean well, but the word just doesn’t stick.

P. accepted the leaflet while I explained that I’d almost lost a fingertip to a particularly vicious letterbox (and here I pointed in its vague direction in case they wanted to avoid it on their walks), and P. said there was one like it at the top of our street.

J. delivers the village newsletter, and P., who retired very recently, either helps out or is an equal participant. Either way, they know their letterboxes.

Then—and I’m coming to my point any minute here—he said, “You have those boxes in the U.S.” His hands shaped the dome of the archetypal American rural mailbox. Something about either his hands or his voice convinced me that they seemed romantic to him, although I admit I didn’t ask. But it made a kind of sense. If they haven’t been worn down daily contact, even the oddest things can seem romantic. I’ve known Americans who fall in love with the British pillar mailboxes because they’re red and they’re shiny and they’re–well, British. They’re also postboxes and not to be confused with letterboxes. They’re the things you post your mail into, not receive your mail in.

Clear?

You don’t—for reasons I’ll never understand—mail a letter in this country. You post it. Even though you’re handing it over to the Royal Mail, not the Royal Post. Because the word usage is foreign to me, I’m sure I could romanticize it. I don’t, as it happens, and pillar postboxes don’t do anything for me either. But I’m a fool for thatched roofs. And I do kind of like the squarish postboxes when they’re set into stone walls. I mean come on now, that’s romantic.

Either J. or P. suggested that I write about mailboxes. Or postboxes. Or letterboxes. Or, well, whatever they are’s. If I hadn’t just endangered my fingers in one, I’d have shrugged off the idea. But knowing what I do about how vicious the beasts can be on this side of the Atlantic, I’m ready to tell you everything I know.

So here’s what I know about American mailboxes, and it isn’t much: With rare exceptions, those domed things that look like miniature Nissan huts aren’t used in cities. They’re rural. Why? Because. In the cities we have—well, where I’ve lived houses have rectangularish boxes of one sort or another, usually on the outside wall. In Minnesota, it’s too cold to run around cutting holes in the doors, even for the privilege of getting mail. At all costs, you want to keep the cold outside and the heat inside.

If you live in an apartment building, you might have a mailbox on or set into a wall in the entryway or lobby, but then you also might pick your mail up off the floor where the letter carrier dumps it. Or half a dozen other things might happen to it. As far as I can figure out, it’s up to the landlord to set up a system. Or not, in the case of it getting dumped by the door.

Romantic, right?

There’s a joke I’ve seen played with the rural boxes: Someone mounts theirs on a pole with a sign on it saying Mail. Then they mount one 10 or so feet above it. The sign on that one says Air Mail. I’d guess that at least one person plays that joke in every county in the country, but it makes me laugh anyway.

I was told once that it’s illegal to stuff flyers in people’s mailboxes in the U.S. because they all belong to the post office. I have no idea whether that’s true—the post office doesn’t buy them, so I don’t see how they own them, and before we left the U.S. I lifted many a pizza delivery ad out of our mailbox without calling either the police or the post office, but political flyers tended—in an excess of legality—to get stuck in the door, so maybe it is true.

Everything I know about British mailboxes I already wrote above. Two things are worth repeating, though: 1, They can be vicious. 2, they’re very romantic.

British and American pronunciation, and other ways of getting in trouble

Susan Leighton, from Woman on the Ledge, traded a few comments with me that led us to discuss the different ways fete is pronounced in the U.S. and the U.K.

Do we talk about the important stuff here or what?

In the U.S., we follow the French pronunciation—or try to, although our accents get in the way of it sounding like French French. But the effort seems to make sense, since the word came to us from French. So we say fett. In Britain, they pronounce it fate. So when a church holds a fete—as they seem to once a year—it sounds like they’re fated to it. Doomed, even. If you’ve ever worked on an event planning committee, you may understand this.

The English and the French have a long and spiky history, and maybe that explains why the British de-Frenchified the word, although it’s more likely that either the U.S. or the U.K.—or possibly both—shifted their pronunciation accidentally and so gradually that they didn’t know they were doing it, which is how these things tend to happen.

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

The same pronunciation pattern governs fillet and ballet. Americans pronounce them, more or less, fill-LAY and bahl-LAY.

But before I give you the British pronunciations, I have to interrupt myself: Nitpickers and experts, please note that I did say “more or less.” Trying to write out English pronunciation in any form that’s accessible to the average reader—or to me, while we’re at it—is a nightmare. Nothing in English is pronounced in any predictable way. When I edited kids’ books, we had to insert a vocabulary list at the back, and include pronunciations, and they were a nightmare. Take ballet: Is that bahl-LAY, as I wrote it? Not really, because the L isn‘t part of the first syllable, but if I wrote the syllable as bah you’d hear a different A—the one we use in bah, humbug—and if you said it that way you’d sound so phony you’d have to end the sentence with dahling.

We should have labeled the lists “Good Luck, Kids.” But the alternative is to use a bunch of symbols that only experts can read.

But back to ballet and fillet: (Are you actually interested in this? Skip ahead if you’re not. I’ll never know.) How do the British pronounce them? FILL-it and something I can’t reproduce but that sounds a hell of a lot like belly, so I’m forever thinking someone’s taken up belly dancing instead of ballet dancing.

Okay. I don’t know many people who’ve taken up either. In fact, I don’t think I know any. Still, I do know people who’ve gone to see ballet—or possibly belly—dancing, so the word, with all its confusions, has blown past my ear canals. Given how different the reputations of ballet and belly dancing are, the confusion’s is a small source of surprise and delight in my life.

I’m sure American pronunciations are equally absurd if you’re not used to them, but I am so I miss the jokes. I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who doesn’t.

As long as I’m talking about the oddities of the English language, I should point you toward an article in the New Yorker,Love in Translation,” by Lauren Collins, which mentions linguists who’ve been trying to measure the difficulties of various languages in some objective way. What they came up with is called the Language Weirdness Index. You have to love researchers who could study 239 languages and come up with a weirdness index. English came in as the thirty-third weirdest. Some—although by no means all—of the weirdest are small and isolated languages. Apparently being spoken by a small, isolated group encourages that, since the societies are cohesive and everyone can count on everyone else to understand what they mean. Languages spoken by large groups get their rough edges rubbed off by contact with other groups.

See? I told you immigration was good for us all.

This seems to imply that however weird (to use the technical term) English is now, it was once a lot weirder.

From there it’s a largish leap to my next bit of language trivia, but it’s a good story, so let’s not quibble over the logic.

Early in her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried to negotiate what was being called a reset with Russia, so some genius got two red plastic Reset buttons made, one in English and one in Russian, and when she met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, she ceremoniously handed him the one in Russian. They were supposed to press them simultaneously, at which point absolutely nothing would happen because they were plastic toys.

Hush. Someone who’s presumed to be very smart spent a lot of time on this.

The problem (other than that they didn’t do anything) was that the Russian one didn’t say Reset, it said Overcharged—peregruzka, according to the article in the Guardian where I found this terribly important story. Do I trust the Guardian’s translation—or actually its transliteration of a translation? Not entirely, so I checked Google, which swore it should be peregruzhenny.

Do I trust Google? Well, no, but if the two had agreed I might have thought they were reliable. Once you get past the U, though, the two words don’t contain any of the same sounds. They do both follow it with a Z, but Z and ZH stand for different sounds.

I mention that because if you’re not used to a language the brain has a tendency to see a word and say “I don’t need to know this and won’t understand it anyway,” at which point it shuts down briefly. If yours did, you can come back now.

I don’t have a Russian-English dictionary, but I do have a Teach Yourself Russian book. Yeah, I do know how well those work, but I was trying to revive my Russian, which was never very good and has been dormant for over 50 years. That’s not exactly the same as learning it from scratch, so I thought the book might be worth a try. It was second hand, so I didn’t lose much.

Back when I bought it, we had a Russian neighbor whose English was even more limited than my Russian, and I was trying to add a few sentences to the handful we could exchange. These were, “How are you?” “I am well, thank you.” “I am very well.” “Today is beautiful. “ “Today is not beautiful.” Plus a few others that I could cobble together but was less sure of. I could have been saying I was squirting toothpaste in my ear and being overcharged. Except that I don’t know the word for toothpaste. Or ear. I do, sort of,  know the past tense.

I think.

Anyway, the book has a small vocabulary list in the back. It’s labeled “Good Luck, Kids.” I looked for overcharged, but the closest thing I could find was over there. I’m willing to bet that in no language are those the same.

I don’t know how to type Russian on my computer and I could transliterate that from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one, but honestly, what’s the point? We might as well be pushing a red plastic toy button.

You have to wonder, once you leave the wonders of bad transliteration behind, exactly what form of overcharged the Russian word—whatever it actually was—meant. Overcharged as in you paid too much? Or overcharged as in I told you you should’ve unplugged that battery last night?

Any Russian speakers out there, what word were they really looking for? And what is the word for overcharged?

I don’t know what position Russian holds on the Language Weirdness Index.

I don’t know what position I hold on the Human Weirdness Index.

Given how bizarre the American election is getting, I should probably add that I don’t consider the Reset Scandal a reason to change my vote.

A Cornish mile and a Cornish saint

Chris White asked what a Cornish mile is, and since I’d never heard of it, I turned to Google and then asked around.

Let’s start with the asking around bit: According to J., it’s one of those flexible distances people use when a car stops and the driver rolls down the window and asks how far it is to Saint Whoosit.

Cornwall has lots of towns named Saint Whoosit, and Saint Whoosit is always a mile from wherever that car stops. At least that’s what J. tells me. Or else the turn to Saint Whoosit is a mile away, right by the bent tree (we have even more of those than we do of St. Whoosits), and St. Whoosit itself is a mile after that.

And ten minutes later, when the car still hasn’t gotten to St. Whoosit, the turn, the tree, or another person to ask? It’s traveled a Cornish mile.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: Flower from our back yard. The bee's blurred, but if you look closely you'll see where the snails hide--something I didn't know until I looked at this on the screen.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: A flower from our back yard. The bee’s blurred, but if you look closely you’ll see where the snails go to hide–something I didn’t know until I looked at this on the screen.

On the other hand, according to Wikipedia (never mind a link—the contents will have changed by now), the old Cornish mile measured 3.161etc. to nine decimal points miles. And in case you need to know this, a Cornish gallon was 10 pounds, but a Cornish apple gallon was 7 pounds.

How do you measure a gallon in pounds when you don’t know if it holds a gallon of water or a gallon of honey? It’s a unit of weight, not volume, that’s how. You have to admire the English language. It’s not only inventive, it’s downright hallucinatory. Maybe it was something in that honey they were weighing.

The entry also defines a Cornish lace, which is 18 square feet. Or 18 feet square. I can’t see why there’d be any difference between the two, but since I’m mathematically incompetent we shouldn’t trust me on the subject.

According to the Financial Dictionary, though, a Cornish mile is 1.5 miles. Why a financial dictionary’s defining an out-of-date measure of distance is beyond me, but it may tell us something about economists that its definition doesn’t match the other definitions. Not that everyone else’s agree, but they might want to report that other opinions exist. (I don’t seem to hold Wikipedia to that standard, which tells you something about my expectations.)

The two sources do agree on the Cornish gallon, in case that’s relevant.

The Cornish mile could also be (and sometimes is) taken to refer to any number of places in Cornwall where road signs tell you it’s, let’s say, 3.5 miles to Saint Whatsit and then a mile or so later you find another sign saying you have 3.5 miles left to go. Exactly what that tells us about the length of a Cornish mile isn’t clear, but it’s one of the things people talk about when the topic comes up. Some can even cite exact locations for the signs. I can’t, but I did find one when Wild Thing and I were on the way to Saint Whatsit last year.

On the VWT4 Forum (no, I have no idea), Lord of the T4s wrote, “At the junction at the top of Port Isaac, the village which is used for the Doc Martin TV series, there is a signpost on one side of the road which reads, “ ‘St. Teath 5 miles’ and ‘Wadebridge 9 miles.‘

“Don’t move from where you’re standing and look to the other side of the same junction, and another signpost indicates that it’s now 5 1/2 miles to St. Teath and 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge.”

Two comments down, Maude explains it all. “It’s basically 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge from there—but if you hurry you can do it in 9.”

Maude, whoever you are, I love you.

St. Teath, by the way, is pronounced teth, not teeth. She lived in the fifth century (and once again I’m drawing from Wikipedia) and was recognized as a saint in Cornwall and Wales. She was also known as Saint Tecla and Saint Tetha, as well as by a variety of other names (Tethe, Thecla, and so on to another nine decimal points). She was a virgin (why anybody had any business asking I don’t know, but folks back then did seem to be obsessed with a small and useless bit of the female anatomy) and one of the missionary companions of Saint Breaca, who jointly brought Christianity to Cornwall. She may have been the daughter of a Welsh king, which also says that she may not have been. Unlike some of her companions, she wasn’t martyred, and according to one theory her name was inserted into the list of companions by accident.

Oops.

If you’re considered a saint but you got saintified by accident, are you still a saint?

Regardless, it’s still pronounced teth. And she got a town named after her. Take that, all you other companions of Saint Breaca.

What does this have to do with a Cornish mile? Not a thing, but I felt like I owed you a few more paragraphs. And now that you have them, I’m entertaining suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about. In a perfect world, they’d be related to life in the U.K. or U.S., but you never know what will get me going. If you expect anything sensible, don’t ask about physics, math, astronomy, or anything that looks like it might fall into that same category. I also wouldn’t suggesting asking about lace making, carpentry, fashion, hair, car repair, or raising children–especially that last one, because although people who don’t have kids offer lots advice it tends to be useless in real situations.

However, if you don’t expect anything sensible, it’s open season.

I don’t promise to write about your topic. Some things work and some don’t, and I don’t always know in advance which is which. I haven’t written about either stiles or tipping. I’ve tried, and they’re perfectly good topics, but so far they haven’t gone anywhere. I’ll give them a bit more thought and see what happens.

So ask me questions. Or make suggestions. I’ll address as many of them as I can. And I appreciate getting a push in whatever direction. As long as the train isn’t coming.

 

Exploring British profanity

Not long ago, someone in an online conversation said that as she gets older she has less “inclination to tolerate the presence of cockwombles.”

The presence of what?

The cockwomble in question was our local Member of Parliament, Scott Mann (the only people I name in this blog are public figures, but if you run for office, sorry, you’re fair game), so I went ahead hit Like. Then I headed for the internet to figure out what I’d agreed with.

According to the Register, “The origin of this very rude term is unclear, although it’s thought to have first surfaced on an online football forum. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, it has been summarised as someone ‘possessing properties of striking idiocy.’ “

The summary the Register’s quoting is on the b3ta dictionary. In case you need to know that.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

But with something this absurd, no single definition is enough. And I wanted to know more about the word’s origin, so I followed a link that promised me the origins of nine “Great British” insults.

Just for the sake of unclarity, I should say that the site could have been promising great insults but could also have meant that they were mediocre insults from Great Britain. Its headline style capitalized most words—never mind which ones; it’s never quite as simple as it seems and you don’t really care, do you?—which meant that Great would get capitalized whichever meaning it had.

As it turned out, the site was a disappointment. Three of the insults were American as well as British (clodhopper; nincompoop; lummox), and cockwomble wasn’t one of the nine.

I love Google. It adds such a layer of pointlessness, to my life.

Anyway, I moved on and found a cycling forum (no, I have no idea; the tides of the internet sweep my intellectual raft to some very strange places) that had hosted (and not taken down) a discussion about the meaning of cockwomble. I came away convinced that no one can define it but that everyone will use it anyway.

Which leads me to ask: If no one can define an insult, is it possible to use it inaccurately? It’s too deep a question to go into here, but I raise it in case you want to give it some thought yourself. As an editor, I saw such gloriously misused words that I started a collection, and soon friends were adding to it. My favorite came from a college philosophy paper: “When we contemplate the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

After reading that, I understood our cats better. They weren’t lying around doing nothing; they were contemplating the obesity of the universe. I could never tell whether ornot they believed in god.

But back to the cycling forum. Highlights of the discussion include—.

Sorry, but I have to interrupt myself again. The contributors were coyly reluctant to swear but were convinced that if they substituted an asterisk for a U no one would know they were swearing.

Is U a bad letter or is something else going on here?

At the exact same time, they believed that everyone would understand what they meant, and these two beliefs cancel each other out so thoroughly that holding them both at the same time should make the believer’s head explode, but that must be a delayed effect, because once that happens you can’t post anymore. And these people were posting.

Anyway, the most vivid definitions were: “a less sweary f*ckMuppet,” “somebody in charge of a department of a local authority” (translation for those who need it: authority here means government), and “anyone who disagrees with you on an internet forum.”

So much for the wisdom of bikers. Or cyclists, as I think people say here.

Collins English Dictionary defines a cockwomble it as a Scottish football administrator. (“Approval status: pending investigation.” Um, yeah, I’d say.)

My search (I only do this, folks, so you don’t have to) then led me to Buzzfeed. How did I get there? By following a come-on that said, “Know your bawbag from your wazzock.” Well, I didn’t know my bawbag from my wazzock, so I clicked through and learned that, being of the female persuasion, I don’t have a bawbag. I understand that many of the people who possess them can’t imagine life without them, but any number of us manage quite well without them.

Do I resent bawbag owners who can’t imagine that every random stranger they meet on the internet might not have one on hand? You bet your ass I do, but not enough to spend much time on it. Especially since bawbag might be used the way cunt is in Britain. In other words, it may be one of those miraculous and logic-defying insults that’s applies to any gender you can think of, even though it’s about as gender specific as you can get. In which case, I can use one as easily as the next guy, so maybe I do need to know it from my wazzock.

But this is all kind of academic since it’s Scottish and I’m not likely to hear it much down here in Cornwall. And if that makes me sound defensive, it’s because I don’t want to dent my reputation for the sparkling use of profanity. I’ve sworn ever since I understood the words. Or before I understood the words, if you want the truth. What I understood was their power. Now that I’m 603, though, I apparently look like someone who wouldn’t swear, which goes to show you how deceptive looks can be and adds an element of (a) hilarity or (b) shock to the exercise.Either one’s fine by me.

But I should stop bragging and tell you what a wazzock is. It’s a northern word for an idiot, so it’s not exactly swearing. We do have idiots in Cornwall, in roughly the same proportion as you’ll find them in the rest of the world, but we don’t seem to have wazzocks. Which is kind of a pity. It’s a great word.

So I learned something, but it wasn’t about cockwombles. They weren’t mentioned.

In a final burst of intellectual curiosity, I looked up womble, because I still wanted to understand the word’s origin. A womble, it turns out, is a furry, pointy-nosed creature that lives in a burrow and helps the environment by collecting rubbish and recycling it. In case it’s not already clear, wombles are fictional. They were created by Elisabeth Beresford and apparently escaped her books and took refuge on TV.

Maybe you need to have spent a few years watching the wombles to understand the insult.

Periodically, someone me asks why, after ten years in Britain, I still sound so American. My answer is usually that I don’t pick up accents in English, and that’s true as far as it goes. But it’s also true that if I did pick up accents, at my age the best I’d manage would be a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and vocabulary.

That means that if there’s a way to misuse cockwomble, I’d misuse it. And if there isn’t, I’d misuse some other word I’d just gotten hold of and wanted to show off. I’d contemplate the obesity of the universe. I’d mistake my nonexistent bawbag for my all-too-existent inner wazzock. Because swear words are rooted deeply in the culture. You can’t listen for ten minutes and get them right.

A belated note here for anyone who dislikes swearing. If you’ve gotten this far. I respect your feelings, but I don’t share them. For me, swearing’s an integral part of any language, and what’s considered to be swearing depends on each culture’s taboos. The whole subject is fascinating.

I can swear a bit in Spanish, and a bit less in French and Greek. (My Greek vocabulary consists of something like ten words, so you should be impressed that I know anything this useful, thanks.) But if I get the words wrong in a foreign language, or use them in an odd way, my accent will explain my absurdity and somebody will have a good laugh—and I’ll join in if I figure out what the joke is, which I probably won’t. But in English, my profanity has its roots in the U.S. of no-cockwombles A. I understand American swearing.

British swearing, though? Not really And you can’t use an insult unless you have a feel for its meaning, its context, its impact.

I’m not assimilated enough for that. So it is with great sadness that I report the following: I will not be calling our MP a cockwomble.

The things we call ourselves: British titles

One of the joys of living in Britain is seeing what titles that pop up when I fill out a form online. I’m not talking about book titles or album titles, but personal titles. In my former life in the U.S., I got to choose between Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Dr., usually in that order.

In Britain, though? I was using a web site a while back and on the Personal Details page I pulled down the Titles menu. They offered me:

Mrs

Mr

Miss

Dr

M

Mlle

Mre

Sir

Lord

Ms

Lady, and

Reverend

None of the titles had periods after them. That may be a cost-saving measure. Those periods can get expensive, even when you buy in bulk.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Wild Thing and I argued about what Mre was. She favors Meals Ready to Eat, but I lean toward a misspelling of Madame: Mme. Exactly why a British web site needs to have French titles, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because someone imported it from another web site, which happened to be French.

These things happen. When I worked as a freelance writer, some real estate developer hired me to write a brochure, and I was told to basically copy it from some other company’s brochure. Why they needed a writer to do that I have no idea, but they were willing to pay me for it and it didn’t seem like a good time to argue.

The original brochure said the apartment complex had an indoor elevator. I copied that in, but at almost the last minute I asked the woman who’d hired me if that didn’t seem, um, strange. She looked at the original. She admitted that, yes, it did seem a bit odd since elevators had a habit of being indoors.

We changed it. We also changed the drawings and enough of the wording that we couldn’t get nailed for plagiarism. So I do understand how easy it is to import very odd stuff into unimaginative text.

That only makes me more curious about how those French titles ended up on the list.

But back to the actual list I pulled down: Prosaically, I checked my standard Ms. But it did remind me that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Full disclosure: Wild Thing and I never were in Kansas. We were in Minnesota. Where they do get tornadoes but where Lord or Lady don’t show up in pull-down menus. Neither does Reverend, despite the U.S. being a more aggressively religious country than the U.K.

Further full disclosure: Although Wild Thing and I got married last summer—we both think it was in June but, romantics that we are, we’ve already managed to forget the date—neither of us goes by Mrs. We can’t see why women should be stamped with their marital status every time they fill out a form or open the mail. It’s a holdover from the days when a woman’s marital status determined her legal status and, hell, her entire life. Calling me Mrs. is a reliable way to make me bristle. I mention that in case making me bristle appeals to you.

For as many titles as Britain offers, Ms isn’t as commonly available as it is in the U.S. I’m sure it means something, although I don’t know what.

But let’s not get stuck on Ms. and Mrs. when we have so many other titles to play with.

I once took part in a letter-writing campaign to the House of Lords, which was considering a bill that has since made a complete hash of the National Health Service. As an American, I’m all too aware of what the alternative to the National Health Service looks like, so I was passionate about this. So passionate that I was willing to write to the members of an antiquated, expensive, and silly branch of government.

A government web page helpfully explains how to write to the lords who populate the House of Lords, because if you’re a lord you just might take the question of how you’re addressed very seriously. And if you’re not a lord but a letter writer trying to convince a lord of something, you don’t want to piss her or him off with your first line. So you read what the government writes and you don’t snark about it until later, when you get to write a blog post and can get as snarky as you want.

To the women lords, you say, “Dear Baroness Whoever,” but to the men you say, “Dear Lord Whoever.”

It’s interesting that you don’t say, “Dear Lady Whoever,” to the lady lords. I would have thought that lord and lady went together. You know: bacon and eggs, bread and butter, lord and lady. But lady must mean something different—probably the wife of a lord. Or—well, how would I know? I’m a barbarian and happy to remain so.

Somewhere deep in the convolutions of the British civil service is a department staffed with people who not only know all this stuff but care.

I was tempted to add a discreet touch of italics to my letters to the men, “Dear Lord,” hoping it would call up an image of my head drooping hopelessly onto a supporting hand, but diplomacy won out and I kept the whole line in respectful Roman type (which is what non-italics are called, so now 96% of you will have actually learned something from this post; an additional 3% already knew it; and the remaining whatever% stopped reading paragraphs ago).

All my discretion didn’t help a bit. The bill passed in spite of my Roman type, and the NHS has turned into organizational hash, which was the goal all along, because the American health companies are circling it like vultures around someone lost in the desert and barely able to crawl. But I won’t go on about that because I’m too angry to be funny.

One baroness did write me back, at length. That seemed like a hopeful sign. She didn’t even open her email, “Dear Plebian.”

So I wrote her back. And she wrote me back. And on we went for maybe half a dozen long emails on each side, and they got increasingly strange, because we seemed to be writing past each other rather than to each other. In other words, she wasn’t interested in what I was saying, so why was she taking her time? I was taking mine because she had some power, or at least the semblance thereof, and for quite a while I suffered from the delusion that I might convince her of something. Gradually, though, I began wanting to ask, “Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

I was grateful when at long last she stopped writing.

Her name later showed up on a list of lords who had financial interests in private health care companies, which should have disqualified them from voting on the bill but didn’t.

Dear lord.

I still want to know why she took the time to write me. Is she so at sea in the House of Lords that writing pointless letters to a random stranger gives her some feeling of purpose?

I notice that Baroness isn’t one of the choices on the pull-down Titles menu. If the baronesses use the site (and I have no idea at this point what the site actually was), They have to be either Lord or Lady. Or if they want to go slumming with the rest of us, Ms or Meals Ready to Eat.

Do people really say “spiffing”?

A. tells me she wants to be a character in my blog. I didn’t think I had characters in my blog, just people I hide behind initials, but I like to make people happy when I can. So here’s a scene, complete with characters.

I was at the pub recently on singers night, and during the break A. and C. and I were standing around talking. As nearly as I can reconstruct the conversation, C. asked A. (apropos of I have no idea what; possibly nothing), “Are you spiffing?”

A. looked, I think, surprised but said yes, she was spiffing.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter. I love fog, which is lucky since we get a lot of it.

An interruption here: Since I’m turning people into characters, I can abandon my limited point of view and say that A. didn’t just look surprised, she was surprised. She was also amused and ready to go along with a joke.

C. turned to me and asked if I was also spiffing.

And here we get another interruption (what would this blog be without interruptions?), because we’ve got to consider the word spiffing. It made me think I’d fallen into a 1920s English novel. I can’t remember hearing anyone say the word before, ever, so when I started to write this scene I pulled out the small collection of dictionaries that made it across the Atlantic with me or that I’ve bought since I moved here. (Before I retired, I worked as an editor, so it made sense to have more than one dictionary. I miss the ones I left behind.)

My American dictionary doesn’t include any variation on spiffing, and I was ready to declare the word a Britishism, but then I tried my two British dictionaries and they didn’t have it either. None of them are particularly good dictionaries, mind you, but still, that says something about the word, doesn’t it? The only places I found it were: 1, In NTC’s Dictionary of British Slang, which gave me spiffed out (dressed up; polished up nicely), spiffing (excellent), and spiffy (clean and tidy; excellent), but it didn’t say anything about their origin. And 2, in British English A to Zed (what could be more British than a zed?), which gave me spif(f)licate (to knock the hell out of; to destroy). I took that for a word origin, although I still don’t see how you get from there to excellent etc.

Then I went online. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff ‘well-dressed man.’ Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) ‘percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock’ (1859), or to spiflicate ‘confound, overcome completely,’ a cant word from 1749 that was ‘common in the 19th century’ [OED], preserved in American English and yielded slang spiflicated ‘drunk,’ first recorded in that sense 1902.”

Preserved in American English? Excuse me, but the only time we’d use the word in the U.S. (and again, remember, I’m omniscient for the duration of this post) is when we want to sound faintly ridiculous. And even then, we’d only use it in one sentence, which we could only say in one of three contexts. It goes as follows: “We’ve got to spiff this place up before

  1. your parents
  2. the landlord, or
  3. the police

get here.”

Or, okay, I’ll contradict myself: We might say something was pretty spiffy. But again, only if we wanted that slight tang of absurdity.

Spiffing, though? Never.

As a point of information, when an online search engine offered to translate spiffy into any of the world’s many languages, I couldn’t resist taking it up on the offer. I chose Spanish first and then French, because I actually speak those.

Almost. To be completely honest, I only speak French if you have some imagination and a flexible definition of the word speak, and even if my Spanish is workable it’s a long way from perfect, but for the purposes of one word that should be close enough. I’d stand a fighting chance of comparing the translation to reality. Or at least to a dictionary.

The search engine translated spiffy as spiffy. In both languages.

Thank you, oh great googlemaster. That was tremendously helpful, but it slowed our scene down, so let’s go back to our conversation. You remember our conversation? A. and C. and me in the pub on singers night?

C. turned to me and asked if I was spiffing. My mind went into that overdrive thing minds sometimes do when they’re asked a question they can’t process. The word spiffing, it said to itself, and to me since I was eavesdropping helplessly, cannot exist outside of 1920s fiction set among aristocratic twits who lounge around holding tennis rackets and drinking martinis. It can therefore only be used by or about people who are English, aristocratic twits, and born around 1900. You are none of these things, therefore you cannot be spiffing.

My mind didn’t stop to notice that C. isn’t any of those things and that A. is only one of them, English, but minds are like that under pressure. Or mine is. It focuses very narrowly and is very, very strange.

Without consulting me (and since we’ve wandered again, I’ll remind you that the question was “Are you spiffing?”), my mouth said, “No, I’m American.”

Which was as true as it was irrelevant.

That pretty well took care of the break. We’d eaten our sandwiches and had our conversation and those of us who’d taken cheese sandwiches had spread the grated cheese that hadn’t made it to our mouths in a nice even pattern on the carpet. That happens every week. We spif(f)licate [knock hell out of] the sandwiches and the next week (or presumably, day) the carpet’s clean again. I have no idea how they get it up. Or why they think carpet’s a good idea.

They could, in theory, slice the cheese instead of grating it, but it would be un-British.

How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.

It’s all tickety boo

You want the American stereotype of British English? The phrase tickety boo comes as close as anything I can think of. It sounds like something that escaped from a 1920s comedy involving a butler who wears a bowler hat to hide his brains and a dim-witted aristocrat who needs a top hat to accommodate his sense of entitlement. Oh, and there’d be a lot of alcohol—martinis, probably—and women (strictly secondary characters) in what were then scandalously short skirts and are now scandalously modest.

Strangely, though, tickety boo is something people still say. Right now, in—what year is this anyway? Twenty something or other. And not clueless aristocrats either. Ordinary hatless, butlerless people who I know.

Or whom I know if you insist.

moose 005

Oh, and did I mention that we got a puppy? He’s the one of the right: nine weeks old and named (what else?) Moose.

So shut up, Ellen, and tell the good people what tickety boo means. It means is okay. or everything’s fine. It has an every little thing’s in place sound to it, although none of the definitions I found in my extensive five-minute Google search mention this. Still, my ear insists on it, and puts the emphasis on little.

It’s informal, as you might have guessed from the sound.

The Urban Dictionary says the origin may be Scottish, but along with the Oxford Dictionary it traces the origins, tentatively to Hindi, although the two dictionaries quote different versions of a Hindi phrase—or (let’s be skeptical) an allegedly Hindi phrase. If I had to bet on one version, I’d put my money on the Oxford one, but let’s not pretend I know anything about this. Oxford sounds impressive and its phrase sounds less like something an ear tuned exclusively to English might have mangled .

How a phrase originates in Scotland and India I don’t know, but to demonstrate the phrase’s Scottish roots, the Urban Dictionary refers to Danny Kaye singing “Everything is Tickety Boo” in a film I never heard of, Merry Andrew. Convincing stuff, right? Kaye was an American actor—the New York-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants whose original name was Kaminsky, which I’m reasonably sure isn’t Scottish or Hindi.

Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so maybe we can make some sort of backing for the theory there.

Do you begin to get the sense that everything isn’t quite tickety boo about all this? That maybe some of the sources you find through Google aren’t perfectly researched? Maybe even that guesswork is involved in tracing word origins?

The Collins Dictionary, playing it safe, says the origin is obscure. Several sources say the phrase is outdated, even archaic. Which would imply that my friends are archaic. Sorry, but we’re not having any of that.

The Oxford Dictionary adds, helpfully, that tickety boo rhymes with buckaroo, poo-poo, shih tzu, Waterloo, and many, many other words that wouldn’t spring to mind if you were going for logical connection instead of pure sound. If anyone would like to use those in a rhymed, metered poem and submit it to the Comments section, I will shoot myself. Although not necessarily with a gun.

*

In Tuesday’s post I left some of you with unanswered questions—which bless your tickety little hearts, you asked—about why I’m cutting back my posting schedule. I didn’t mean to be cryptic or to worry anyone. Here’s what’s happening:

Ever since Wild Thing was diagnosed with macular degeneration and had to quit driving, I’ve been thinking about posting less often. Not necessarily forever, but for now. The changes in our lives haven’t been easy to get used to, either emotionally or practically, and one result is that I haven’t been keeping up with the details of my life lately.

While I was arguing with myself over whether or not to cut back, I got a bad cold, which came close on the heels of a miserable flu, and on Monday night I realized I had nothing at all to say for Tuesday’s post. The only thought in my head was, Do we have enough cold pills? So that tipped me over the edge. If I’d a bit more room in my head for thoughts, I might have said all this in Tuesday’s post but I didn’t and so I couldn’t.

I’m pulling back from some other commitments as well and hoping all this will leave me time to moult—you know, drop old feathers, grow new ones, maybe some listen to music more often, do more baking, spend more time with Wild Thing, and do more work on the book I’m theoretically writing. Maybe even shovel out the house a bit more often.

But you’re not rid of me yet. I’ll be around on Fridays. And already I’m missing my old schedule.