Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

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

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

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

Observations about America:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

Teaching English to the English

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

(A)  Meticulously

(B)  Fussily

(C) Ineffectively

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

Time’s up. Please hand in your papers.

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

Totally irrelevant photo: a camellia.

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

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

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

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

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

They will, forever after, hate Dickens.

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

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

All students are expected to test well above average. *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Struggling with what? I asked myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough. We’re outta here.

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

Does that help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

Things that actually happen in Britain

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

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The arts are flourishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water companies use witchcraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman becomes Black Rod

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

As what?

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently.

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

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

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

He lost.

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

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

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.