Scones, battleships, and why the London underground’s called the tube

Last Sunday, I opened the paper to find almost a full page devoted to a burning question: How do Britons pronounce the word scone?

I’d been under the impression that everybody who isn’t me pronounced it—as the article explained it—so it rhymes with gone. I’m not sure how useful that is, since for all I know the pronunciation of gone shifts from region to country to class to ethnic group. I pronounce it gawn, although I don’t drag out the W. The pronunciation they’re relying on is, I think, something closer to gohn. Or is that gahn?

English is such a mess.

Still, gone is a good enough place to start. Let’s leave it there for a minute or three.

Irrelevant photo: A bunch of junk I picked up in a few minutes on the beach, mostly plastic rope from fishing nets and a few other bits of plastic junk. Plus a shotgun shell. The village’s weekly beach clean continues and the organizers have set up a board encouraging people to do their own two-minute beach cleans. Plastic bags are neatly tucked into a slot in the board so you can grab one to fill. And yes, I’m aware of the irony in that, as I’m sure they are.

I assumed that rhyming scone (more or less) with gone was the English way of saying it. Or possibly the British way. That gets complicated too–sorting out what’s British from what’s English. I couldn’t remember for sure how they say it in Scotland, never mind Wales and so forth. I do know that the further north you travel in Britain, the longer the O gets (it has something to do with the weather), so scoooon would’ve been a reasonable, guess. I’d add more O’s, but any more than that and I’d fall into the North Sea.

As it turns out, scoooon would’ve not only been a reasonable guess but a wrong one. They save scoooon for the village of Scone, and also for the Stone of Scone, (pronounced, more or less, stown of scooooon, not stooooon of scooooon). The Stone–pay attention, because this is important–is (a) not shaped like a scone; (b) not edible, what with it being a stone and all; and (c) a source of conflict between the English and the Scots. It’s also called the Stone of Destiny. You can read a bit about it here. It’s a great, if slightly batty, story, but not one I want to get into here because, hey, we’ve got important stuff to talk about. Like how to pronounce scone.

I rhyme it with cone.

As it turns out, I’ve been wrong, not about how to pronounce it but about what I’ve been hearing. People from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the north of England rhyme it (more or less) with gone. The newspaper article says that people from southern Ireland (um, I believe that’s called the Republic of Ireland these days, folks) and the English Midlands join me in rhyming it with cone. Wales divides by region. Everyone else does whatever they want, although the gone pronunciation is slightly more common.

Just so you understand how important this is, a group of Cambridge University academics produced a map of this, the Great Scone Map. Isn’t Britain wonderful?

An article in The Big Think adds two useful elements to the discussion: (1) It rhymes scone with either con or cone, and con strikes me as a more accurate and reliable rhyme; and (2) it includes pie charts showing how the word’s pronounced in the U.S. The charts include a category labeled “What’s a scone?” If you fall into that category, you don’t pronounce the word at all.

The rest of the newspaper article goes on to talk about how pronunciations change over time. Trap used to sound more like trep, and pat like pet. How long ago? It doesn’t say, but it does add that poor and pour used to sound different, and in some place still do. It doesn’t—wisely, I’m guessing—try to spell out how they were (or are) different. When I was a kid, a few of my classmates insisted there was a difference between merry and Mary. As they said them, there was, although you had to listen damn carefully. As I said them, there wasn’t.

Some fifty years ago, the article says, caliber was pronounced ca-LEE-ber.

Since, as I’ve said before, I’m 103 (and please note, I haven’t gotten any older since I started blogging a couple of years ago; blogging, if done consistently, will keep you young), fifty years doesn’t seem like such a long time and I’d expect a few recalcitrant ca-LEE-brists to be hanging onto their pronunciation and insisting that the rest of us are ignorant, uneducated, and just plain rude, but I’ve never heard it said that way. Which means something, but I have no idea what.

And there endeth our pronunciation lesson for the week.


You probably already know this, but you haven’t heard it from me, so let’s devote a few column inches to Trump’s announcement that he was sending an armada to the Sea of Japan to let North Korea know who the biggest kid on the block is. Except that the ships were some 3,500 miles away and sailing cheerfully in the wrong direction. If you go metric on that, it’s just possible that they were closer. A kilometer’s shorter than a mile, after all.

That has nothing to do with Britain, the alleged topic of this blog, but if Trump and Kim Jong Un manage to blow each other up it’ll involve all of us, no matter where we live, and that’s a good enough excuse to mention it. In the meantime, I just couldn’t pass by an incident that crazy without mentioning it.

If you’ve lost any battleships lately, do leave me a comment. I like to keep up with these things.


In an comment on an earlier post, Deb wrote to say, “As I am fairly new to your UK Notes, a request, although perhaps you have already written eloquently about the topic, but tube station and the tube in general… I would love some insight into how that name came to be. Subway is so obviously American and creepy and dark, but tube? Who gets the credit for that?”

Well, how could I ignore a question that says I write eloquently? Or that I might have written eloquently. Hey, I take my compliments where I can find them, even if I have to stretch the language to get them. I might indeed have written eloquently, although as it happens I not only didn’t, I hadn’t even thought about the topic. So here we go:

In the 1890s, electric trains were introduced on the London underground, and with them tube-shaped tunnels. The name dates back to that period and I haven’t seen it attributed to any one source; it just popped into the language and stayed there, as so much of the best slang does. The earlier lines (the first one opened in 1863) used steam trains and I don’t know what they were shaped like. Stars, maybe, or salamis, but “Most days I ride the salami to work” just didn’t have the same imaginative authority.

For what it’s worth, parts of the underground are aboveground. They’re sort of nothing shaped, since it’s hard to figure out where they end.

I never thought of the word subway as creepy and dark. I grew up in New York. The subway—okay, not the subway itself but some of the men on it, and in their absence, the possibility of them—was sometimes creepy but the word was just a word. Most of the time, the subway nothing more than a way to get from here to there. And some of the time—well, my brother was obsessed with trains for a while and the two of us spent hours riding them, preferably in the front car, where we could stare out the front window into the dark, watching the tracks and the signals. That part of the time, they were great. For a while, I wanted to drive a subway train when I grew up, even though women didn’t do that back then.

When we first visited Britain, Wild Thing and I saw a sign in London that said “Subway.” I knew that the trains were either the underground or the tube, but my brain—strange creature that it is—insisted that a subway was a subway anywhere in the world, so we followed the sign into a tunnel. Which led us—well, not exactly nowhere, but under a street. Then, having gotten us to the far side, it abandoned us. It was a sub-way: a way that went beneath something, in this case a street. It all made sense, but I couldn’t help thinking it had done me wrong.

As always, I’m happy to (try to) answer your questions about Britain, the United States, nuclear physics, phenomenology (if I figure out what it is) and anything else that holds your attention for more than ten seconds. I don’t promise that my answer will be of any use at all, but if I can answer it reasonably well (in my own unreliable opinion), or have fun trying, .I’ll tackle it.


And finally, a bonus: an irrelevant, news item for those of you who made it to the end: India’s top court set aside a high court decision because no one could figure out what it meant. (Please note, the top court seems to be higher than the high court. I don’t know what that means either.) The part of the decision quoted in the paper runs as follows:

The “tenant in the demised premises stands aggrieved by the pronouncement made by the learned executing court upon his objections constituted therebefore wherewithin the apposite unfoldments qua his resistance to the execution of the decree stood discountenanced by the learned executing court….

“The learned counsel…cannot derive the fullest succor from the aforesaid acquiescence…given its sinew suffering partial dissipation from an imminent display occurring in the impunged pronouncement hereat wherewithin unravelments are held qua the rendition recorded by the learned rent controller.”

Boy, was that hard to type.

Those of you who rely on Word to warn you if your grammar’s falling off the edge of the English language should be aware that it didn’t raise a single grammatical objection to that. In fairness, though, the spell check did go nuts.

Stay out of trouble in whatever unfoldments this week brings you, and do keep track of your battleships, because you never know when and where you might need them. I’m going to go walk the dogs. Somebody has to do something sensible around here.

What people really want to know about Britain, part something

Let’s take a break from the way the world (or at least the U.S. as I once knew it) is imploding and ask what people really want to know about Britain. Because I don’t know about you, but I need a break from reality.

If you haven’t been reading Notes for long, here’s how I figure out what the world wants to know: I read the questions that lead people here. It’s highly unscientific, since people who want to know about Roman walls wouldn’t have, until today, found anything to lead them here, but what the hell, it’s the method I have to hand.


A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone's garden in Exeter.

A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone’s backyard in Exeter.

As always, people wanted to know about judges’ wigs, and occasionally about lawyers’ wigs. Someone wanted to know why barristers wear wigs, and I live to inform the curious multitudes. It’s because they want to. In spite of all the studying they had to do to become barristers, they watched too much TV and it left them with the impression that they’d look important if they ran around with white, sideways Shirley Temple curls on their heads.

No, I can’t explain it either.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone, carefully placed in the same yard, which I'd call a garden if I weren't, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone from the Roman wall, carefully placed in the same yard, which I’d call a garden if I weren’t, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

A related comment (it wasn’t really a question) read, (and as usual, these come with no capital letters or question marks), “the wig which judges wear in uk courts is a with answers.”

Got that? If the writer’s correct, all those judges share a single wig. This has to be awkward, since although Britain looks small if you’re sitting in a big country like the U.S., it actually takes quite a bit of time to drive a single wig from courthouse to courthouse, stopping at every last one from Land’s End to John O’Groats and from Fishguard to the white cliffs of Dover. No wonder the courts are building up a backlog. It’s not budget cuts, it’s because that damned wig got caught in traffic.

Why do the judges have to wait for the wig to arrive? Because they’ve also been watching too much TV, but also because, as the writer says, “is a with answers.” The wig has the answers. Want to know the correct precedent for the case in front of you (and this is especially important in a country with an unwritten constitution that consists of a random number of historical documents and every damn precedent ever precedented)? The wig knows what it is.

And then it moves on.

Americans, as always, want to know what the British think of them, and especially if they hate them or like them. What is it with my fellow countrypeople? Is crossing the border into a foreign country so terrifying that we have to slip a message in a bottle before we take the risk, asking, “Is anyone out there? Do you hate me?”

Right now, a lot of the people I run into are asking what’s wrong with us (the us here being Americans), and I don’t have a good answer. If you’re American and visit Britain, please don’t take that as personal hostility. It’s political. And it’s a not a bad question.

Within a few days, over a million Britons signed a petition asking to ban Trump from making a state visit to the U.K. But relax, friends, no one’s doing anything extreme like proposing a ban on anyone with an American passport if they were born into one religion or another.

Several questions this time around asked about the phrase tickety boo. One person just typed in the phrase. Another wanted to know who says it. J. does from time to time. So do other people. Does that help?

Probably not. Here’s where I tell you everything I know about it. And more.

As always, a few people wanted to know about British beer and a few others wanted to compare American and British swearing. For all I’ve written about tea, no one who wanted to know about it was led here, they were all seized by larger sites. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Someone wanted to know, “how to drive straight in a narrow.” Um,  you do that by not turning the wheel. Someone else typed in, “uk narrow streets dangerous for driving.” Oh, I dunno. If you’re careful not to hit anyone, they’re okay. They may be more work than a wide street, but I’m not sure they’re any more dangerous.

A third person asked, “Why are englands roads so narrow.” Because, my friend, a whole shitload of them were built before the first car was ade. They were the widths people needed (or could afford) back then. And—you know how this works—folks built their houses alongside them. And then cars were invented and traffic got out of control and even though people tried shoving the houses back a few feet it didn’t work, so they left them where they were and there they sit to this day. And when one or two of them fall apart or get torn down, they’re replaced by newer buildings but since the neighboring buildings are usually still standing, the road stays narrow.

And that’s how the crocodile got its tale.

Aren’t you glad I’m here to sort this shit out?

The usual wheelbarrowload of people wanted to know why Britain is called Great Britain, or simply why it’s called great. It’s not a moral judgment, it means big. Someone did ask, though, why it was called Britain, which is an interesting twist on the question and if life ever settles down a bit I’ll see what sort of answers I can dig out.

Almost as many people asked about brussels sprouts (usually in the form of why they’re eaten at Christmas) as asked about why Britain was called great. Now that tells you what’s important in the culture.

Someone wanted to know about “Russian hotel aftermath/torch [explicit].” That was before the allegations about Trump and golden showers in a Russian hotel, although maybe somebody knew something even then. Do the allegations mention a torch? I don’t remember any mention of that.

I also didn’t write about that. The search probably landed here because of a post about a hotel fire in Exeter. Which is not in Russia, it’s in Devon. And no one seems to be saying the place was torched.

As far as explicit goes, the post was pretty mild. Sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I lack imagination.

A few questions came from the clued-up. A few people wanted to read about emmits. It’s not something you ask about if you don’t already know a bit. Someone else wanted to know about “tutting in a queue.” Again, you have to know a bit about the British religion, which is standing in line—otherwise known as queuing—and British disapproval, which often takes the form of tutting, before you can ask the question. I’d give you a link to whatever I wrote about all that but I have no idea where it is. Google “tutting in a queue” and “Notes from the U.K.” and you may or may not find it.

Someone else asked, “why do mps walk five steps and bow.” Wow. Good question. Do they? Always? No wonder it’s so hard to accomplish anything sensible. The MPs (that’s Members of Parliament to the uninitiated) are all running around the Westminster chess board like knights with a twitch, one step forward and two to the side, then they bow. With two hops in the middle so it adds up to five.

Can I go watch?

One lone soul asked about kitten post it notes. I’ve used the word post, sometimes in the context of blogging and sometimes in the context of the Royal Mail. And when Fast Eddie was a kitten, I posted (and there’s that word again) photos because I was threatened with a boycott if I didn’t. So there you go. It all comes together.

Someone wanted to know about cockwombles. It was one of my more profound posts, if I do say so myself.

And finally, someone wrote, “notes i have my own rules to.” Uh huh. I have a few of my own rules, and lots of notes. I can even decipher some of then. Others are as much of a mystery as that comment is. I’ll leave it for you to figure out.

Stay sane, people. The world’s getting crazy. And speak up, because this is when it matters. It really, really matters.