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.

Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

Why Britain is called Britain

Every so often someone searches the internet asking why Britain’s called Britain and the question lands them in the surreal territory that makes up Notes from the U.K. It’s a sensible question, and it makes a nice change from the related (and way more common) questions about why Britain’s called great. (Answer: ‘cause it’s bigger than the single-patty, quarter-pounder Britain. And it comes with a slice of pickle. Would you like fries with that?)

I’ve been meaning to research the question but put it off because it promised to be complicated. And it fulfilled that promise. It is complicated. Allow me, please, to make it worse.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, Britain is the “proper name of the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 1300, Breteyne, from Old French Bretaigne, from Latin Britannia, earlier Brittania, from Brittani “the Britons” (see Briton). The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant “Wales.” If there was a Celtic name for the island, it has not been recorded.”

Are you confused yet? If not, go back and read that again, because you should be.

Good. If you’re now in the right state of mind, we’re take that mess apart, spread the pieces out on the living room floor, and look at them as carefully as if we expected to understand them. I doubt we’ll get all the parts back where they started, but what the hell, we didn’t write the definition so it’s not our problem. We might just figure out how it worked (if, in fact, it did work) before we pulled it all to pieces.

But before we dismantle the thing, I should let you know that I’ve made labels so we can sort the bits into categories. A lot of them could as easily go in one pile as another, but we need some sort of system if we’re going to keep this organized.

Wish me luck.

Marginally relevant photo: This is Britain, or a bit of it anyway. The picture doesn’t explain anything, but it is what we’re talking about.

The Romans and the Britons

What we’ve got so far, if you read between the lines of that not-very-well-organized definition, is that Britain was named by the Romans, who invaded the place in the first century C.E. and claimed naming rights.

Stop. What’s this C.E. business?

Like many of you (that’s a guess, but humor me), I learned to divide history into B.C. and A.D., using a system that take the birth (or is it death?) of Christ as the dividing point for all time everywhere. I was taught that the initials stood for Before Christ and After Death, which seems to leave the period when he was actually alive a blank, but never mind. It was a good way to remember which set of initials was what.

A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our lord—or so I was told by a teacher who was probably as Jewish as I was and am, but the system was so rigidly in place at the time that neither of us commented on the strangeness of claiming a god who wasn’t ours and using him as our marker. Whatever B.C. really stands for, I’m sure it’s Latin as well, but a quick rattle through Dr. Google’s knowledge pills didn’t leave me any wiser and it’s a side point anyway. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, we’ll stagger forward.

Decades after I learned about B.C. and A.D., I was working as a copy editor for a major publishing house. (I’m retired, much to the publishing world’s relief, and any inconsistencies in style that you find here are because I don’t get paid to care anymore. Wheeeeeeeeeee.) Their encyclopedias were sold in many countries and to many cultures. They needed to be inclusive, so they used C.E. (the Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of A.D. and B.C.

C.E. / B.C.E. is an attempt to keep what as far as I know is the dominant dating system but without assuming that the entire world takes Christ as its reference point. But introducing a new system confuses the hell out of people over I’m not sure what age—and possibly under it. I’m sorry about the confusion. It took me a while to get used to it too, but there’s nothing like getting paid to help a person get on top of a new way of thinking. Now that I’ve made the transition, I like system, but I always feel like I need to explain.

At length, unfortunately.

And as another side point, the Muslim world starts its dating system from an entirely different point: the year Muhammad moved from Quba’ to Medina. So I could be wrong about what the dominant system is. Maybe it’s just been the dominant one in my life. Which is easy enough to mistake for the entire world.

The earliest dating systems tended to use rulers as their reference points—something along the lines of “In the third year of the rule of King Idogar the Insignificant…” That meant that different countries used different reference points and any single country used different reference points at different times. It made piecing the quilt of world history together a nightmare, since after a few centuries no one knew when old Idogar reined. So both the Christian and Muslim systems were massive improvements, giving everyone a stabilized way to track time, even if they both assumed their religions were and always would be the center of everything.

Onward. Or possibly backward to what we were talking about before I so rudely interrupted myself.

When the Romans landed in Britain, the place was inhabited by Celtic tribes—the Britons mentioned in the definition—who don’t seem (emphasis on seem; we can’t know) to have called it “Britain.” What did they call it? Dunno. They would’ve called it something more specific than “home.” They traveled to Europe (more about Europe in a minute), and Europeans traveled to Britain, so everyone involved would’ve needed a name for it. When you step outside of a place, you do need a way to talk about it. And Britain’s an island, which makes it distinct enough that it would’ve screamed out for a name of its own.

But what mattered more than the island at the time was what tribe a Briton belonged to or what tribe’s territory an outsider landed in. Britain wasn’t a united country. It wasn’t a country at all. Whatever it was called referred to the geography, not any political grouping.

As (yet another) a side point, no one had a name for Europe back then. They had names for its parts, but they didn’t think of the whole. It’s not a place with clear geographical borders, so naming it would have been like naming half your hand: It’s just not something most of us feel a need to do. Plus it’s big. No one at that time, as far as I know, would’ve traveled completely around it. So—to use a different comparison—naming it would’ve been like naming yourself and six inches of the air around you. This isn’t a territory most of us need a name for.

What people named were the parts—the places where they and people they knew about lived.

So the Romans invaded Britain and claimed naming rights, and in the process of naming the place named its inhabitants. We don’t know if the pre-Roman Britons had a group name for themselves. Until they were invaded, and probably for some time after, they’d have been more likely to see the differences between their tribe and the neighboring tribes than the samenesses.

The tribal names have come down to us from the Romans as the Iceni, the Cornovi, and so on and on and on. But those names use Latin forms. At best, they’d be Roman manglings of what the tribes called themselves and at worst complete impositions. One of the tribes is called the Setantii. I don’t know Latin, but that sounds suspiciously like the Italian word for 70—settanta

Why call a tribe 70? Once again, dunno. We’d have had to be there. Maybe that wasn’t what it meant at all.

But let’s go back to the word Britain, which comes from Brittania (however you want to spell it). It seems to come from an earlier word, Prettanoi or Prittanoi. And now it’s time to move over by the coffee table, because we’re going to put our pieces on a new pile.

The Celts, the Greeks, and the tattoos

One source says the name Prittanoi (however you choose to spell it) came from the Britons’ “Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native [that means Celtic] word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. [I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, grain of salt here. It’s on the shelf in the kitchen. Thanks.] Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi).’”

Wikipedia (never mind the link—it will all have changed by now) says (or once said) that the word Prettanoi came to us from the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed around the British Isles (quick geography lesson: that includes Ireland) between 330 and 320 B.C.E. and that the word may have come to him from the Gauls.

Another source, and I’ve lost track of it by now—sorry; I’ve looked up too much closely related stuff and it’s all cross-fertilizing—says the word meant “the tattooed people.” The British tribes were known for painting themselves blue, at least when they went into battle, which they allegedly did naked. Spend a winter here and you’ll understand why I say “allegedly.” It’s not Minnesota, but speaking only for myself, I wear clothes and am damn glad to have them.

Some Roman sources claim the tribes didn’t just paint themselves but were tattooed, and a different Wikipedia entry translates Prettanoi as “the painted or tattooed people.” And, for whatever it’s worth, the BBC says that when the Normans invaded, they found the British (I’m not sure which British: the Anglo-Saxons or the Celts or both?) still tattooing themselves, and the Normans took up the habit from them. I’m not sure when they stopped, but I can tell you that they’ve started again, with (as far as I know) no sense that they’re carrying on a longstanding national tradition.

That second Wikipedia entry I mentioned also raises doubts about the word Prettanoi having anything to do with blue paint or tattoos. It links it to the Welsh word pritu (“ Proto-Celtic kwritu,” if that means anything to you), which meant “shape” or “form.” “This leaves us with Pritania,” it says.

Welsh is a descendant of the language spoken by some of the Celtic tribes (we’ll get to why I say “some of” eventually), so looking at Welsh makes sense , but I have no idea why “shape” or “form” would seem like a good name for an island or a people. I admit that both have a shape, but so do most solids.

Okay, when we took that apart, we kind of wrecked it. But what about Albion meaning “the white land”? One source (and again, I’ve lost track of which one; do you honestly care?) says the word’s probably Celtic but related to the Latin albus, meaning white, as in the white cliffs of Dover (presumably), because the land itself is green. That would mean the link to whiteness comes from Latin, not any Celtic language. Celtic and Latin are two very different, very unrelated languages.

I’m willing to believe that a Celtic word sounding roughly like Albion got mixed up with the Latin word meaning “white” and before anyone knew what had happened they were all as confused as I am. Or as you are if you’ve been following me closely.

But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I have the sense that there’s a lot of guesswork going on here. And that from time to time serious explanation edges over into pure fantasy.

But we’ve wandered. You should know better than to leave me in charge.

If some of the Britons’ neighbors called them the Prittanoi or something vaguely like it, it’s no great surprise that it stuck. Many groups of people have been landed with names (often insulting ones) given to them by their neighbors. The Saami people used to be called Laplanders. The Inuits were called the Eskimo. The Ojibwe were called the Chippewa. They’ve only recently started to insist that the world call them by the names they call themselves.

For the Prittanoi, though, it’s too late. Whatever they called themselves is lost, and so are they.

More about the Celts, a bit about the Greeks, and nothing more about tattoos

While we’re talking about the Celts, let’s back up a bit and ask who they were.

The word describes a group of tribes who ran around Europe before anybody started taking notes. They can be traced back to the upper Danube around 1,400 B.C.E

According to one source, the Celts started arriving in in what’s now Scotland around 900 B.C.E. Which doesn’t mean all the Celts left Europe. One source (I no longer care which one; I’ve lost the will to link) says the Celts were in Austria France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Western Germany, Northern Spain, Turkey, and Hungary in 400 B.C.E. Not that any of those countries existed, but the Celts were in place and absolutely panting for them to be invented.

But another source says the Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts (that means the tribes who spoke one version of a somewhat common language, and I can’t pronounce the word Goidelic either) between 2000 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. and the Brythonic-speaking (that’s the other version) Celts sometime between 500 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.

Flip a coin. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. They got here. That’s all we need to know for now.

The Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton languages are descendants of what we now call Celtic.

So why do we call it Celtic? Some sources claim the word Celt (it’s pronounced kelt; have I mentioned lately that English is insane?) comes from the ancient Greek keltoi, meaning “barbarian.” I doubted that because I happen to know that the English word barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning–you guessed it– “barbarian.” To the Greek ear, anyone who didn’t speak Greek must’ve all sounded like they were saying “bar bar bar baar bar bar bar.”

Where does keltoi come into it, then? Possibly nowhere. When I tried to find a translation, I came up with several people writing on the assumption that it did mean barbarian but not actually translating the word. Which made me—cynic that I am—even more suspicious. One site that looked like it was actually going to translate it ended up telling me about yew trees instead. So for a while there, I didn’t think I could find any proof the word even existed.

Ah, but I knew you were waiting, so I pressed on and found some online dictionaries of ancient Greek.

Now, ancient Greek uses—surprise, surprise—the Greek alphabet, and one dictionary offered me an on-screen keyboard. I don’t know Greek (my vocabulary’s made up of a few food words and a few insults, plus the words for and and barbarian), but I can stumble through parts of the alphabet, so I picked out the word κελτοι and hit Search.

A new screen appeared and said my search for κελτοι had come up blank.

Well, yes, I could see why it might’ve. I don’t know what alphabet that is or whether it’s used on this planet, but it ain’t Greek.

Fine. I found a dictionary that would accept transliterated words and typed in “keltoi.”

New Screen. Great excitement, because we were about to have a revelation.

The word means “Celtic.” Or “Gallic,” since that’s what the Romans called the Celts in what the Romans called Gaul, which covered what’s now France and Germany and a bunch of other places that didn’t have any political existence or possibly even separate names yet.

So the word Celtic derives from a Greek word meaning “Celtic,” which for all I know was taken from a Celtic word meaning “Celtic.”

Do you feel like we’re going in circles here?

Fine. We’re lost. But it’s okay, because we’ll just accept that Celt either comes from a word meaning “Celt” or from thin air and we’ll go on to talk about the part of the definition we started with, which says, “The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant ‘Wales.”

Reinforcing that, another source says that around 1200, Briton meant “a Celtic native of the British Isles,” or “a member of the tribe of the Britons.”

The Angles, the Saxons, and the Normans, but still no more tattoos

To make sense of that, we need to talk about a few more invasions.

The Romans, when they were still running Britain, brought in mercenaries who belonged to a couple of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, and ceded land to them, which they settled. I don’t know if they pushed the Celts out of those lands at this stage or not, but I’m willing to guess that the good land suddenly wasn’t in Celtic hands.

After the Romans withdrew, more Angles and Saxons invaded or migrated—take your pick—into Britain. Between them, the Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts into the corners of Britain—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

The Angles eventually gave their name to England, which gradually became a country instead of a gaggle of small kingdomlets. That much seems clear. Not to mention shockingly simple.

Then Anglo-Saxon England got invaded by the Normans, who came from France but were originally Norse, which is the origin of their name.

Almost nobody in this tale ever leaves well enough alone. Especially (and I do know this although I don’t do much about it) me.

That brings us to the part of the definition we opened with where it says the word Britain came back into use from the Old French, which had preserved the Roman name. If that’s true, what did the Angles and Saxons call the place?

One of the 607 Wikipedia entries I got lost in says that in Old English—that’s the language of the Anglo-Saxons before and for some time after the Norman conquest—it was called “Bryttania.” Then it goes on to talk about the word Britannia re-entering the language from Old French, which the Normans spoke and which eventually merged with Old English to give us the glorious mess of a language that we have today.

How is Bryttania different from Britannia? Ignore the spelling, because spelling was a liquid back then. Most people couldn’t read and those who could treated spelling as a creative activity. C’mon, they didn’t have TV. They had to do something.

So let’s shove the spelling difference over a cliff. The two words look the same to me. Maybe the talk about the word re-entering from Old French is because French is what the conquerors spoke, so even if they used was the same word, the Norman version was the one that mattered. But you remember how I said things shade over into fantasy pretty quickly? I’m helping the process along here, because although that explanation sounds sensible I have no idea if it’s true.

We’re almost at the end here. Do you feel certain of anything anymore? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. So let’s end with a reminder from the BBC, which at least will take us back to a reliable source:

“Before Roman times, ‘Britain’ was just a geographical entity, and had no political meaning, and no single cultural identity. Arguably this remained generally true until the 17th century, when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.”

*

Okay, that’s everything I know, and a bit more. If you’d help me get this mess off the living room floor, I’d appreciate it. Just drop it in the trash can as you go out. And have a good Friday the thirteenth. If you want to make corrections, add facts, or subtract facts, I’d welcome it. On the other hand, if you just want to tear your hair and moan, I’ll understand it. And on the third hand, if you want to complain, I’ll understand that as well.

British schools: kids, commas, and tests

We interrupt our scheduled mid-week quiet time to report on a bit of educational nit-picking. But first, a bit of preamble:

In the interests of improving British education, students here get tested. A lot.* The idea is to make sure all schools meet some minimal standards, then to make the minimal standards higher than minimal, and after that to correct the problems that grew out of or were revealed by any earlier testing, which you do by adding more tests. At the end of which the kids–as Garrison Keillor put it–will all be above average.

Garrison Keillor’s a Minnesota reference that Americans from the other 49 states may or may not recognize and that non-Americans probably won’t. Don’t worry about it. He’s a funny guy but he’s a side issue.

If the answer to all educational problems is to test, it seems fair to ask what they’re testing for.

Why, things they can mark, of course. And more than that, things they can mark easily.

Irrelevant photo: Valerian. This will not be on the test.

It’s not impossible to mark stuff like deep thought, good writing, and comprehension, but it’s harder than marking yes/no, right/wrong, up/down, which means it costs more, and anyway it involves an element of subjectivity and, um, thought. All that really good stuff is hard to quantify. So if you’re setting up a foolproof system, what you do instead is set standards that make the process–not to mention the product– so prefabricated that you’re no longer worrying about fluff like thought and good writing, you’re checking whether the kids have done what they were asked–sorry, make that told–to do.

And there we have standardized testing. In the lower grades, the schools look good if their kids do well and look bad if they don’t. In the upper grades, ditto, but now the kids’ chances in life depend on doing well. So the schools teach to the tests and everything narrows down.

Isn’t childhood fun? Don’t you just wish you were a kid again?

When the national average on the tests does down, everyone panics. Our kids aren’t learning. Our schools aren’t teaching. Our country’s falling apart. And when they do do well? A smaller number of people panic, but they do it so well that surely the numbers don’t count. The tests have been dumbed down. Too many kids passed. We’re not asking enough of them.

So, that’s the preamble.

In the most recent primary school tests, kids lost points because their commas weren’t perfectly curved and their semicolons had floated too far away from the words they followed.

The directions for people marking the tests are so specific that if I were grading papers I’d need a see-through ruler. And Prozac. One section says, “The comma element of the semicolon inserted should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation. . .  Where the separation of the semicolon is excessive, neither element of the semicolon should start higher than the the letter ‘I’. The dot of the semicolon must not be lower than the letter ‘w’ in the word ‘tomorrow.’ ”

Which is very different from the “w” in the word “water.”

In spite losing points for straight commas and oversized semicolons, 61% of the kids met their targets in reading, writing, grammar, and math, compared with 53% last year.

Which proves the tests have been dumbed down and the country’s falling apart.

 

  • A cross-party committee of MPs warned that the some of the tests were endangering both kids’ learning and their well-being. So far, that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.

British regionalisms

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may not be true, but it is convincing.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

You can find a list of nicknames here.

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

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

The breathtaking thing is that traces of that survives.

News about the English language

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

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

A lot of what they say involves swear words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

The swearword group generated more power than the table group.

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

*

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

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

Immigration, body language, and the apostrophe

A few weeks ago, I had one of those moments that remind me how immigrantish I am, even after eleven years in Britain. I mention it because so many anti-immigrant complaints come down to this: Immigrants too immigrantish. Why can’t they just be like us?

Mind you, I don’t think everybody staying in the cultural boxes they were born to is a recipe for universal happiness, let alone world peace. But those immigrantish moment do remind me why people who live in cultures they didn’t grow up in don’t instantly blend into the new one.

What happened was this: My singing buddy, G., and I were working on a song and decided we’d sing the chorus twice because it’s short and In the kind of music we sing joining in on the chorus is eleven tenths of the fun. So, we figured, let’s give ‘em more chorus.

Then managed to forgot how many times we’d sung it. So, clever me, I thought I’d keep count on my fingers: index finger, one time through; index and middle finger, twice through and time to move on.

By the time I realized what I’d done, I was laughing too hard to sing.

If you’re not British, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Holding up two fingers (if the palm’s facing the owner of the fingers) is right up there with flipping someone the bird. Or is flipping the bird only understood in the U.S.? It’s right up there with holding your middle finger in the air, all by its lonesome. If I’m still basing myself too heavily in the insults and explanations of my native culture, let’s try this: It’s a serious insult.

A photo that would’ve been relevant to last week’s post: This is the National Trust/Cadbury poster promoting their egg hunts. You’ll notice that for all the complaints about Easter being airbrushed out, the first line that the eye picks up uses the word.

I’ve lived in the U.K. long enough to know that, but my nerves and muscles haven’t. They’re stubbornly American. On the instinctive level, which is where they do their work, two fingers are just two fingers. If I want to order two teas and there’s some confusion about how many I asked for? May all the gods I don’t believe in protect me, those are the fingers I’d be most likely to hold up. It’s long-distance communication. Communication that carries over the noise of a cafe.

It’s also a good way to very seriously insult someone.

But that’s the thing about nerves and muscles. They work faster than the brain. Faster than the thought, You’re in a country where you don’t count on your fingers that way.

So that’s one reason immigrants are so stubbornly immigrantish: Unless you move to a new country when you’re young, some parts of you just don’t change. Even if you set out to adapt your habits, one by one by one, as I haven’t, there’s always something left.

How do people count on their fingers here? I have no idea. In some countries, I’ve been told, you start with the thumb. Two coffees? That’s the thumb and index finger. Hold up the thumb and middle finger and you’re likely to end up with three coffees.  But in Britain? I can’t remember anyone waving fingers around to let someone else know how many teas or coffees or beers they want. For all I know, it’s an un-British way to communicate.

D. swears that if a doctor asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” it will always be three. I don’t remember the reason it won’t be one, but she says they’ll be afraid to hold up two and are too lazy to hold up four or five.

Why is sticking two fingers up an insult? No one seems to know. The usual story has to do with the Battle of Agincourt, which was won by English archers and the longbow. The English are still sticking two fingers in the air to show the French they haven’t lost the ones that matter to an archer. Unfortunately, every place I found it explained that way also said it probably wasn’t true.

But if you hear about me getting into a brawl somewhere, it’ll be because it was noisy and I was trying to ask for two of something.

*

From body language, let’s move to the written language. My relocated friend J. pointed me in the direction of this story;

A vigilante has been roving night-time Bristol for thirteen years now, correcting the apostrophes in signs. Yes, friends, someone has dedicated his life to that, and the BBC interviewed him early in April.

Is what he’s doing illegal? “It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place,” he said. And although proofing your own writing is a losing battle (I’ll quote on that anytime I have to explain a typo on the blog), I’ve proofed that quote three times to make sure the apostrophe was in the right spot.

The interview led a newspaper columnist, Catherine Bennett, to point out that he’s not the grammar vigilante he claims (somewhere; I’m not sure where) to be, because grammar’s one thing and punctuation’s another. And that’s a powerful argument for not claiming to be an expert on anything: Sooner or later you’ll get something wrong and someone else will find it. And point a finger at you and feel clever about it. That someone may not be an expert themselves, but it takes a whole lot less expertise to find one mistake than it does never to make any.

All this led me to learn that chain stores are dropping their apostrophes all over Britain’s high streets. So far, no pedestrian casualties have been reported.

If you’re in the American Midwest, the high street is the equivalent of Main Street. If you’re anywhere in the U.S. except New York, it’s the equivalent of downtown. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to muddle through without a translation. Waterstones—the bookstore chain that was once the bad guy in literary circles because it was forcing out independent bookstores but has become the good guy because it’s at least a real bookstore, not Amazon or something else on the internet—has dropped its apostrophe because that works better online. Barclays, Marks and Spencer, and a few others have done the same.

If you want more examples, the comment on this story has more of them than the story itself, which is pretty minimal.

In the U.S., place names are apostropheless because the U.S. Post Office doesn’t believe in them. Harpers Ferry comes to mind. If apostrophes are clothing, Harpers Ferry runs around stark naked.

In Britain, the rule on place names seems to be, Do anything you damn well please. Earl’s Court has an apostrophe if it’s the tube station but not if it’s the event venue, which is Earls Court. (Sorry, event venue is a ridiculous phrase but its the description I found and it knocked any real language out of my brain) On the other hand, the Barons Court tube station has no apostrophe. I could go on, but enough.

The Bristol vigilante will never be out of work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay.

The Oxford comma and political activism

Back when I, very occasionally, taught fiction writing to grade-school kids (if you’re British, that would be—I think—primary school kids, and if it isn’t, little kids will get close enough to follow the story), some nine- or ten-year-old would always ask, “Do we have to use punctuation?”

“Only if you want me to understand what you write,” I’d say if I had my act together that day. If I didn’t, I’d just say yeah, they probably should, and move on.

But I loved the question. It’s so nine- or ten-year-oldish, and that age group was always the most fun to work with. The enthusiasm hadn’t been squashed out of them yet, and they had to skills to actually write something. Plus they asked questions like that.

Well, if somewhere deep inside you’re still wondering whether you have to use punctuation, and why, here’s a story for you:

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, on the grounds of Caerhays Castle–which given that most people around here don’t pronounce the R in any way I recognize as an R sounds like Ca’haze to me.

First, though, a bit of punctuation lore. There are two ways of using the comma when you’re listing things: 1) I ate eggs, toast, and bacon. 2) I ate eggs, toast and bacon. I’m a vegetarian but I’m not so pure that I won’t eat the imaginary stuff. But in the second sentence, I don’t get to eat the final comma, because it disappears.

In the U.S., we called that third comma the series comma, and it’s optional. In Britain, it’s the Oxford comma, presumably because the University of Oxford style guide recommends it although the dominant style says not to use it.

When I was in third grade, our teacher told us that we could either use it or not, and we should decide which style we liked. The series comma was more formal, she said. (My third-grade teacher was a man, but memory insists a woman taught us that. Maybe we had a student teacher, that day, or a substitute, although if it had been a sub there’d have been too much chaos for me to remember anything except, maybe, flying sandwiches. But let’s pretend memory knows what it’s talking about and call the teacher a she.)

I decided I’d use the informal style, because even then I knew informal suited me. I was very taken with the idea that I had a choice.

Years later, when I worked as an copy editor, I learned that most book publishers use the series comma. I didn’t ask why, I just went with house style, because that’s what you do when you’re a copy editor.

It turns out that lawyers like the series comma too.  According to the Guardian (I’d give you an American source–I found several–but they wouldn’t call it the Oxford comma, so we’ll go with a British one), a Maine law says that employers in three forms of work aren’t required to pay overtime:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” three kinds of food—don’t worry about which kinds.

Drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy won overtime pay because the lack of a comma means it’s not clear that distribution is a separate kind of work—the law could well be talking about packing for shipment or distribution. And those drivers are distributing.

According to Maine law, an ambiguity in laws covering wages and hours has to be interpreted “liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.” It’s not mentioned in the story, but the list of foods that I said not to worry about uses semicolons instead of commas, but it does use one to separate the final item–a series semicolon–so I’m guessing the intent was exactly what the court ruled.

Why those categories of work shouldn’t be covered by overtime is beyond me, but that’s a different issue.

One of the many odd things about Britain is that people—okay, a small group of people—can actually get worked up about the Oxford comma. I’m not sure what I think about that. It’s heartening that somebody cares. On the other hand, good lord, people, will you look what’s happening in the world? The comma’s the least of our problems.

But–maybe the comma really could save us–before I move on to a story about something else that’s happening in the U.S., here’s my third-grade teacher’s lesson on why we needed to use punctuation. He wrote some words on the board:

“The man ate the waiter watched”

Then he punctuated them two ways:

“The man ate. The waiter watched.”

“The man ate the waiter. Watched.”

We were third-graders, so we giggled hysterically.

I don’t remember anyone asking if we needed to use punctuation after that. And I only remember the words he wrote because in the second version watched was left hanging off the end—not a full sentence and not a satisfying sentence fragment, although I wouldn’t have had the words to explain why it bothered me at the time.

We end up remembering unfinished, bothersome stuff like that.

Okay, a story about the U.S., I don’t live there anymore, but I do follow what’s happening as best I can, and like anyone who’s politically active online, even marginally, I get emails urging me to write one politician or another, or to call about something, or to sign a petition. Lately, those emails seem to come by the thousands. And because I’m a citizen of two countries and a loudmouth in both, I get them from two countries.

So what happens to all those opinions that pour into politicians’ offices? A New Yorker article did a great job of tracing that recently. I won’t try to cover it all—go read it; it’s interesting, and if you wonder whether any of this matters it’ll give you some answers.

Briefly, most communications politicians receive fall into three categories:

Category one is communications about nonpartisan and often technical issues. These can often be effective, calling a politician’s attention to something neutral and fixable. Doing something about these things is safe and makes the politician look and possibly even feel good.

Category two is communications about partisan issues. These are unlikely to change the politician’s basic orientation, although they can call politicians’ attention to parts of their constituencies that they hadn’t been aware of—as in, Oh! I hadn’t realized I had a politically active Iranian-American community in my constituency. Maybe I’d better make some gesture in that direction as long as it doesn’t piss off some other, larger constituency or set of donors. (I do hope I don’t sound cynical here.)

Category three is related to category two in that it consists of opinions about partisan issues but a separate category forms when they arrive in a flood, which indicates that something important is going on out in the real world. That makes politicians worry about their reelection prospects. And that has a way of catching their attention.

Lately, the U.S. Congress has been flooded. Emails have been bouncing back from overstuffed inboxes. Phone lines have been busy and callers haven’t been able to get through. (This is a bit dated but may still be true–I’m not sure.) A Democratic senator reported that his correspondence from constituents went up by 900%. A Colorado Republican got 3,000 calls in a single night and a Washington Democrat got 31,000 in three weeks.

“The thwarted and outraged took to Facebook or Twitter or the streets,” the article says. “The thwarted and determined dug up direct contact information for specific congressional staffers. The thwarted and clever” sent faxes.” One Republican senator received 7,276 faxes in twenty-four hours. “The thwarted and creative phoned up a local pizza joint, ordered a pie, and had it delivered, with a side of political opinion, to the Senate.”

Much of the outpouring has been spontaneous, rather than in response to organizational requests to call or write so-and-so about such-and-such. No one knows if it will continue. But whatever the response turns out to be, it is being heard. Something’s going on out in the real world.

Lately, I’ve been getting a swarm of emails asking me to take a one-click poll about some burning political issue or some politician. Do I like/dislike? Agree/disagree. They need to hear from me. My opinion’s crucial.

I hit delete. Some of the polls reappear. Ellen, the emails say, we haven’t heard from you.

I wrote back to one, asking, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are?”

Oddly enough, no one got back to me on that, although I really did need to hear from them.