What the world really wants to know about Britain, part sevenish

What leads (a few) wide-eyed innocents from all over the internet to Notes from the U.K.? Let’s look at the search questions they ask–and let’s pretend it tells us something about what they want to know about Britain.

We’ll start with the strange ones, for a change, instead of saving them for dessert.

Strange questions

“why is everyone wearing pineapples”

I, my friends, am not wearing pineapples. Not as I type this and not when I read the question. That convinces me that not everyone is wearing pineapples. I don’t think I ever have worn pineapples, although there was a stretch of time when I wasn’t responsible for what I wore—or even for remembering it. But my mother wasn’t a pineapple kind of parent. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dress me in any. If this is really important to anyone, I can ask if my older brother remembers any pineapple-related clothing events–his memory kicks in a few years earlier than mine–but I’m hoping you’ll take my word on this, because it’s not going to be easy to explain why I’m asking.

And to be completely clear, it doesn’t matter if the question is about clothing with pictures of pineapples, the fruit itself (sliced or whole; canned, fresh, or dried), or three-dimensional imitations of the fruit. I am not now wearing nor have I ever worn any of them.

Why did the comment lead someone to me? Because one of my posts, “Banning Pineapples,” mentioned that a couple of music festivals had banned them, along with hand grenades and land mines. You can understand why they’re all in the same category, right?

As an article on the BBC website explained (and it’s bizarre enough that it bears repetition), “Organisers said [the ban] was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

No, I don’t understand it either. Especially the pork soda part. But nothing I wrote mentioned anyone dressing in or as a pineapple. Pineapples are not in my head. And what kind of world do we live in that people don’t make a distinction between wearing pictures of pineapples and decking themselves out in dripping slices of the canned stuff?

A very strange world, that’s what we live in. It must be time for an irrelevant photo, and then another question.

Blatantly irrelevant photo: begonia flowers

“coke fabric yard”

I not only don’t understand this question, I can’t account for it leading anyone to Notes. As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about either coke or Coke. Yard? Yes, I have mentioned yards, probably in the context of metric and non-metric measures. Fabric? In the U.S, it’s measured by the yard, so I might’ve used that word too. Plus I do tend to call that piece of ground outside a house a yard. I probably said something about ours. The British call it a garden. Even—I think—if it’s cemented over.

Coke, though? I can think of three meanings of the word, and none are measured by the yard. You might as well toss pineapples into the conversation.

Surely thousands of other people on the internet have mentioned the word yard. How deep into a Google search would you have to go before you landed here?

Well, because I take the responsibility of blogging seriously, I checked. It turns out that you can buy Coke fabric—that’s fabric with pictures of Coke (cans of, or maybe bottles, but not spills or glasses), and the first couple of search pages were all about how to buy some. So if someone wanted to buy Coke fabric by the yard, they didn’t have to go very deep into the listings–it’s all at the top. But they went past all that, so I kept going as well. And it all got strange by the second or third page. I found:

Christ to Coke: How an Image Becomes an Icon. When I followed the link, I landed midway into the thing and found a mention of fabric and a picture of the American flag. No Coke, no Christ, no idea what it’s all about. Best guess? It’s somebody’s PhD thesis and it’s all very, very deep. Too deep for the likes of us, so let’s move on.

Next came The Dangers of Kissing and Diet Coke: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know. This leads to a book that opens by saying, “I bet you bought this book because you wonder what’s dangerous about kissing and Diet Coke.”

Well, no. I didn’t pay a damn dime and wouldn’t have. And when the author didn’t get around to either kissing or Diet Coke within the first few paragraphs, I figured it was clickbait and bullshit and I moved on to The Pollution Abatement Handbook, which mentioned both coke (a fuel used in making steel) and fabric filters to minimize emissions.

Below that I found The Reports of Sir Edward Coke KNT (1572-1617), in Thirteen Parts, which not only gives us one of the keywords in the author’s name but somewhere along the line mentions a church-yard, and that hyphen make sit look like the word yard is running around loose. No fabric. Sorry.

“KNT” may be an abbreviation of knight, but might also be a hint that the gentleman was knit. Or–as I’d have put it–knitted (or is that knot, or possibly knut?), but both spelling a grammar were different back then. I think I like it best when I’m not sure, so I didn’t try to find out anything about him.

After that came a story about cocaine being found in a Coke factory in France, which is appropriate, then one about what it’s “really” like to smuggle cocaine. Then we were back to Coke fabric.

Then I gave up.

“what does ‘feeding the bears’ mean when it comes to classroom instructional design”

Um. Gee. I have no idea. I googled it but the responses were about feeding actual bears. Or not feeding actual bears, which for most of us seems like a good idea.

The exception was the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as getting a traffic ticket. It had a second definition, but it was even less useful. I have as little understanding of how the search led to me as I do of the definition the writer was looking for.


Questions about Britain’s greatness

As always, people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. Or sometimes when it was first called Great Britain. Or—from the gullible—why Britain’s great. This version of the question comes from people who think the jumbo burger has to be big in some absolute way when in fact it could easily be bigger than a micro-size regular burger.

Great Britain is—as I say every time I write one of these posts—a geographical term. It means big.

When I slotted the question into Google, I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to work my way through pollution handbooks. Notes was close to the top of the list. Of course, Google feeds you what it thinks you want and confirms whatever prejudices it thinks you have. Still, you take your triumphs where you can find them.

If you want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain, it’s here.

I have yet to write about when Great Britain was first called that or why Britain’s called Britain, but a shallow splash in the Google pond tells me that Britain comes from the Latin Britannia, which dropped out of use when the Romans left Britain and came back into use when the Normans shot an arrow into the eye of the king of the moment and put themselves in charge, so they got to call it whatever they wanted.

I still don’t know why the Romans called it Britannia, but let’s not dive down that rabbit hole right now.

In the meantime, if you think words will make a country great, I refer you to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Full disclosure: Some versions of the quote use “cannot” instead of “can’t,” and one link claims he never said it at all. But, as Yogi Berra (is alleged to have) said, “I never said half the things I said.” So let’s not quibble.

And by way of full disclosure, I can fool myself perfectly well, so you don’t have to bother.

For the sake of variety, someone asked, “why great Britain.” This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine, “Why a duck?” But really, why not a duck? And why not Great Britain? But all this threatens to involve us in some pretty deep thought and it’s too much for a Friday morning. We’ll leave it.


Knowledgeable questions


You have to know something about Cornwall to ask about this. It’s a Cornish word for incomers, and also for tourists, who swarm all over the landscape like ants, which is the word’s literal meaning.

When I googled emmits, I popped up at the top of the list, which is (again) meaningless since Google’s feeding me what it thinks I want to see and it knows how vain I am.

The word is also spelled emmets, and since that’s not the spelling I used, I drop out of the running if I put the word in that way. I should probably have gone with the e spelling. It seems to be more common.

What are people really trying to find out when they google this? If they’re emmits (or emmets), maybe only a definition, but maybe what the Cornish think of them. Since I’m not Cornish and came here four generations too late to ever be, you shouldn’t look to me for an answer.

“what is a cockwomble”

I’m not at the top of the list here, but in the narrow field of cockwomble experts I do at least register. I’m so proud. And proud of all the strange people who know enough to ask what a cockwomble is. What information I have is here.


Repeat questions        

Every time we do this, people want to know about:

Why British lawyers wear [fill in the blank with a disparaging adjective] wigs in court. Recently they’ve also been asking about court wigs.

Answer: It keeps their heads warm.

Oh, hell, I suppose I should include a link. Actual information is here.

Beer. This is usually—getting right to the point—about which country’s beer has more alcohol. Honestly, who cares? If you’re worried about getting drunk on minimal volume, try vodka. Or gin or tequila. Hell, it you can go for stuff that comes in colors too if you like.

How the English (or British) feel about (or treat) American tourists. A recent version of this read “british snooty to american tourists.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly (to do this, you pour off the SEO and interpret the patterns left behind), this should really have its own category: Paranoia. The writers are wondering whether it’s safe to take their delicate little selves out of the United States and whether the British will be mean to them. Take the risk, folks. It can’t possibly be as bad as junior high school.

Unless you were the people who made junior high so horrible.

“Tea on the Lawn.” It took me a while to figure this out, but these questions turn out to be about a poem that must be assigned to half the schoolkids in Britain, and they’re all out there looking for a quick way to get their bored little heads around it—possibly without having to read the damn thing. A recent query was looking for a summary. Read the poem, kid. It’ll be shorter than the summary.

The post that draws these poor souls was about a fund-raising tea on the lawn of a great house near where I live. It’s a very British thing, that kind of tea, and as a rule it doesn’t involve poetry.


New questions

how to act like an aristocrat Mostly, as I write this drivel, I don’t think about SEO—search engine optimization, or how to game the googlemonster—but when I wrote the headline that drew the poor silly soul behind the question into my lair, I did wonder if someone wouldn’t google the phrase. And someone did, confirming my worst suppositions about human nature.

“romance, marriage, village life” I have no idea what someone expected to find, but when I google it, my post on gay marriage, romance, and village life shows up. It’s probably not what the person was looking for, but it involves all three words. A triumph.

“US mail box UK”

What can I say? Name a topic and someone out there is interested in it.

“a bit about Britain”

There’s a blog by that name, and several of its posts turn up in a Google search. A post of mine shows up at the bottom of the page, after the ones that were a closer fit, and the questioner continued down that far, leading me to conclude that some people have too much time on their hands.



Questions about pronunciation usually ask about place names, but not long ago someone wanted “pronunciation of whoo.”

This is awkward. The English language is such a mess. I edited kids’ nonfiction (briefly, which is too bad because it was great fun), and one of the things I had to do was create a vocabulary list for each book, with not just definitions but also pronunciations. Real linguists use a set of symbols that only they can understand. If you know the code, they’ll tell you how a word’s pronounced, but our lists had to use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and make sense to the average ten-year-old.

It tells you something about the language that we need a set of symbols the average English speaker can’t read to tell us what our words sound like. But never mind them. I couldn’t use them–both because I don’t understand them and because they wouldn’t do what we needed done.

So: English pronunciation with 26 letters. Have you ever tried writing the pronunciation of an English word? Name me a vowel (we’ll leave the consonants alone; they’re not as much of a mess) that doesn’t have three pronunciations for every whim that crosses its flitty little mind. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten avoids the whole problem by finding a word or phrase that each Yiddish word rhymes with. It works perfectly, but there must’ve been moments when he pounded his head against a wall.

So how do you pronounce whoo? Whoo. That’s  sort of like woo, but with a bit of air on the H, but that’s too long winded for a vocabulary list. It rhymes with few, but then so does woo, so that’s no damn help.

I’m happy to say, it never came up in the kids’ books.

“what do british call brownies”

Brownies. Aren’t you glad you asked? Mind you, British brownies aren’t always what I’d call brownies, because they’ll accept anything that’s baked, oblong, and vaguely chocolaty, but I’ve had some American brownies that I could describe the same way.

Semi-relevantly, the British tend to go over the top with their brownies, presumably because brownies are American and that’s what they think Americans do. So you can see a perfectly innocent brownie in a café’s display case, order it, and find that it comes to your table under a wedding gown’s worth of whipped cream embroidered with chocolate sauce. Plus, in the name of health and safety, a tiny marzipan stethoscope.

A question of my own and a bit about SEO

Before I end, I should make an opening, once again, for you to tell me what you’d like to know about Britain. Or the U.S. Or any other topic I might be unqualified to write about. I don’t promise to tackle it. That depends on whether I can be marginally informative while still amusing myself–and, with luck, you. But I will try.

And the bit about SEO? I just read that the Google searches beginning with “how to” are up more than 140% since 2004. (Sorry, I can’t give you link to prove I didn’t make this up. It was a very small item in the Guardian, and when I searched for it online, the matches were at least as bizarre as the stuff I’ve quoted above. Maybe it didn’t go into the online edition.)

The most popular searches include:

  • How to tie a tie (get someone to do it for you once, slip it off without unknotting it, and never own more than that one tie; when it gets dirty, twist it around to the back shows instead of the front)
  • How to kiss (put four lips together and see where things take you)
  • How to make money (don’t listen to anyone who charges for an answer)
  • How to write a cover letter (badly if the ones I’ve seen are typical)
  • How to make french toast (French toast? Excuse me, but I’m not answering that. It throws me so far off course that I’ve changed the structure of my answers by adding caps and periods and all that sentence-ending stuff. How’s that for intense? So let me ask a few questions of my own: Why not mashed potatoes? Why not pieroshki? In what culture is this a basic life skill?)

What the world wants to know about Britain, part sixish

The search questions that lead people to Notes have been killingly dull lately, but I did find a few with some spark. So let’s visit to the minds of those good folks who, day after day, search the internet for answers to life’s most improbable questions.


A search asked about “british places ignored syllables.” Well, silly me. I thought it was people who ignored the syllables, not the places. But no. The way it works is that Derby gets bored with being Derby after a century or ten and decides to be Darby. But all those road signs are already in place, and do you have any idea how expensive they are? So the spelling stays Derby but now we all have to say Darby or we’ll piss the place off.

And Woolfardisworthy? It can’t be bothered to mumble anything longer than “Woolsery” these days. It’s old. It’s tired. Show some respect, people: Call it Woolsery.

C’mon, that’s at least as sensible an explanation as the truth. If you want something marginally more sensible, try looking here.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what this is. Other than a flower, of course.

A related search read, “pronunciation of geography.”

Ooh, I know the answer to that. It’s pronounced almost the way it’s spelled, which makes it unusual in our language: gee-OGG-ruh-fee.

Someone asked, “what would be the british dialect for ‘tube of toothpaste.’ ”

Um. that would be “tube of toothpaste.”

I can’t comment on how well or awkwardly English dialects other than American match up with British, but I can tell you this: If you’re American, you’ll get by as long as you stick to dental hygiene. It’s when you get to clothing and the casual words for a few significant body parts that you should start worrying.

Someone wanted to know about the pronunciation of the Stone of Scone. Here’s what you need to know: The thing you eat rhymes with either cone or con, and which one you rhyme it with depends on where you live, where you grew up, what color your hair is, whether you’re wearing earrings today, what class you belong to or want people to think you belong to, and a variety of other factors too complicated for a mere foreigner (and remember, I am one) to understand. The Stone of Scone, though, is not edible and I wrote about it once already, so I’m going to hide behind myself and refer anyone who’s interested to my earlier post.

I’m not actually going through my search questions so I can refer you back to earlier posts. Blogging experts tell us to find excuses to do that because it bumps up your stats (translation: makes it look like you have more readers), but I check my search questions and write about them because they’re absurd. And what’s life without absurdity? Linking to earlier posts keeps me from boring either myself or those of you strange enough to have stuck around here for a while.

Someone wanted to know the British name for the semibreve. It’s the semibreve.

Since I’m reduced to helpless giggles anytime I’m around someone British discussing musical notes, I thought I’d better check with with Dr. Google before I went any further. Dr. G. says a semibreve is “a note having the time value of two minims or four crotchets, represented by a ring with no stem. It is the longest note now in common use.”

Sorry. It’s not just the names, although I find them hysterical. It’s the act of defining something incomprehensible by comparing it to something equally incomprehensible–something you’d only understand if you didn’t need to ask the meaning of the first word–that finishes me off.

But to go back to the question: It’s the Americans who call the semibreve something else—a whole note.

What’s a full breve? An antiquated note with the value of what I learned to call two whole notes.

Google, as it so often does, offered to translate semibreve into French. It’s semibreve. (Somehow or other, I left it set to French, but it has a whole list of languages it can mangle a word into.) The semibreve is also a semibreve in Spanish. No translation is available for Amharic, but in Russian it’s целая нота. Which, even though my Russian’s minimal at best, I understand better than “semibreve,” because if you take the words apart it translates to English as whole note.

Excuse me for a few minutes. I’m going to hide in the corner and giggle helplessly while I repeat “minim,” “crotchet,” and “quaver.” Why don’t you go ahead and read about wigs until I pull myself together?


As always, a bunch of people asked about wigs: “why british lawyers still wear those wigs in court” is typical enough to stand in for almost all of them. Short answer? Because they have to. They’re bald. Men, women, and everyone in between—even the very few dogs who passed the bar exam. Every last one of them is bald. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Another query asked, “what do british lawyers wear to court.” (Almost no search question arrives with a question mark in tow. Or a capital letter. No one can be bothered using a question mark or a cap these days. They know they can get away without them so they don’t even pretend to make an effort. The ox cart of civilization, my friends, is rattling itself into little pieces on the bumpy roads of modern communication.)

Where were we. (See? No question mark. I tell you. Kids these days!) What British lawyers wear to court—other than wigs, of course. Why, swimwear. The men wear budgie smugglers, the women wear two-pieces, and the dogs wear water wings. Any lawyer who doesn’t fall into one of those basic categories can mix and match any old which way.

You’d think people would know these things by now.

The judges wear robes (no, not the bath type; the Harry Potter type) and haven’t been able to stop laughing since the new rules were introduced. They don’t find quavers and crotchets amusing, they don’t crack a smile at the wigs, but the swimwear? They’ve lost all dignity over it.

Someone else wanted to know if British solicitors wear wigs in court. I’m fairly sure the answer’s no, because solicitors are responsible for the out-of-court half of the lawyer business. It’s the barristers who appear in court.

Since the topic of wigs comes up so often, I guess it’s time to say that Britain makes an odd connection between the law and funny headgear. I mean, can we forget the wigs for a minute? Have you looked at the hats cops wear? The strategy, I think, is to disable the criminals (or villains, as they—yes, really—say here). Have you ever tried to start a football riot when you’re doubled over laughing?

Another question was about British legal wigs, and it’s a relief not to have to write about the illegal ones, because sooner or later, you know, we were going to get caught.

Okay, I’m faking my way through this. I don’t know anything about the legal wigs. Dangerous as it was, I was on firmer ground when we were out there on the edge with the illegal ones, so let’s move on, okay?


Someone asked about “tutting in a queue.” This is a well-informed search question. The writer knows what tutting is: the almost inaudible sound of someone British disapproving (violently, in their opinion) of whatever you just did. If you were raised to know the power of a tut, you will crumble to dust when tutted. It’s the modern version of banishment or outlawing. It shoves you—the tuttee—outside of the human community, where you will no longer receive friendship, sympathy, or the protection of law.

And if you weren’t raised to know its power? You’ll never know it happened.

So that’s the what, now let’s get to the rest of the question. A queue is what Americans call a line, and the British create one in all situations involving more than one person: Then they wait their turn, without shoving, elbowing, or behaving badly.

So what happens if you find two people waiting (in a queue) for a bus and you stand off to one side till the bus comes and then get on first? You will be tutted within an inch of your life. And while you’re busy pushing your way in, the two people will still be in their line—you didn’t expect them to step out of it, did you?—so the tutting will be from the queue if not exactly in the queue.

That was the search question, remember: “tutting in a queue.”

It gets messy, wandering onto the shaky ground where prepositions build their homes. You know prepositions, right? Anything you can do with a cloud—be in it, on it, with it, of it, around it, near it. They’ve got to be one of the messiest elements of any language, because either they follow no logic or they follow a different logic in each language.

A few of quick examples: 1, Are you on a chair or in a chair? It depends on the language you’re sitting in. 2, The Yiddish-speaking immigrant garment workers in New York bequeathed to my generation a sentence that made, I’m sure, perfect sense in Yiddish: I work by buttons. I’m seventy and still haven’t quite figured it out. 3, Look up the overlapping (to an English speaker) meanings of the Spanish por and para and you’ll get a sense of why prepositions are one of the things a second-language speaker consistently mangles.

But back to our search question. If the tutter is in the queue, can we also say that the tut in the queue? Or is it the act of tutting that’s in the queue? Actually, can anything as insubstantial as a tut be in anything physical?

Well, yes. A room.

I’m going to stop before I combust. The best I can do is leave you with those questions to ruin your weekend, because I’m moving on.

Another question was about road courtesy, and I have to say, the roads in Britain are extremely courteous. As are the drivers, although I’ll never convince anyone British of that. They tell me that today’s drivers have lost all respect for other people and for common decency. They’ll use the phrase road rage, which in this country tends to mean yelling at someone, not shooting them.

To be clear, it does occasionally mean someone gets punched, which can take the fun out of a trip to the beach, but by American standards? That’s not road rage, just bad temper.

What today’s drivers need is a serious tut.

Several people wanted to know about British profanity and one asked about “british swear insults.” They’re imaginative, which is why a couple of queries about cockwombles found their way to me, since it’s a question I did address.

I just love being an expert on something.

Great Britain

Invariably, a raft of people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. (Is a raft of people plural or singular? What a messed-up language we have. The more I know, the less I’m sure of anything.) I’ve written about why it’s called that and I’m bored with it. The more interesting questions ask things like “why is Britain Britain,” so let’s talk about that instead.

It’s because Britain’s stuck being Britain, the same way I’m stuck being Ellen Hawley. I could change my name—I thought about it at one point, and if you’re interested I’ll tell the tale, probably in the comments since it’s not worth a whole post—but even if I had, I’d still be me. Only the packaging would have changed.

That leads me to ask what a Britain is. You can’t deal with why it’s something until you figure out what you’re talking about.

Britain’s not—surprise, surprise—a country. The country is the United Kingdom. Britain’s a geographical term (I’m still bored with it; go see the earlier post if you want something marginally sensible). It’s also not a nation. The nations in the U.K. are Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. And Cornish nationalists would add Cornwall to the list.

So I’m going to assert—in the absence of any audible opposition—that I’m not being asked about Britain’s culture (nation) or history (country) but about its location (geography). Therefore, the answer to the question is as follows:

Britain is where it is because the British can’t move it. Most British people believe they’d like to live in a different climate (most of them, one that’s drier and warmer), so if towing were possible they’d have moved it somewhere else by now. Being human, they’d have spent their travel time arguing over whether this was the best direction to tow it in and when to drop anchor, but they would have moved it somewhere.

The problem is, or was, that it’s glued down. It’s not going anywhere.

Have I clarified that? I thought so.

Strange questions

Someone typed “little lamb and dog disappeared in u.k.” And they found me. Why? Well, I use the word dog in a heading, and U.K.’s in the title. So “What the hell,” the algorithm said to itself. “Where else am I going to send this? Dump it on that Hawley woman. It’ll keep her out of trouble for a while.”

As it happens, my partner and I have found lambs out wandering, but they were with their mother, not with a dog, and it was a while ago, so it would’ve been a different lamb. I’ll keep an eye out, though, if it’ll help.

Could someone let me know who to contact if I find them?

Someone else was—well, looking for something. All I can say for sure is that someone typed in “who use 6ish.” I probably did. I’m an –ish kind of person where numbers are involved, but I suspect I wasn’t what they were looking for. I did, though, in honor of whoever was looking, use sixish in the title of this post. One of these days I’ll figure out how many of them them there are in this category.

The fact that the question came to me probably means I claimed an earlier post in this category was also the sixthish. Sorry.

And finally, someone asked, “what do brits think of disney world.”

Wild Thing—my partner, who I haven’t written about in ages, not because I’ve forgotten about her but because the blog’s taken a less personal turn lately—was in Orlando, Florida, for a conference a hundred years ago, and she swore the place was full of British tourists wearing mouse ears and moaning about how they couldn’t find a decent cup of tea and what kind of motel/hotel doesn’t have a kettle in every room anyway?

For years, whenever someone in Britain told us they’d been to the U.S. she’d ask where they’d been. If they said Orlando—and they often did—she’d say, “We really don’t all wear mouse ears.”

I’m not at all sure they got the joke. Or recognized that they’d heard one. She got tired of finding out how many people go to Orlando and doesn’t usually ask these days.

Anyway, I think the answer is that the Brits who like it are happy to wear mouse ears. And the ones who don’t? They aren’t.

Does that help?

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.