High tech news from around the world

As a rule, I write about Britain, but nothing’s more British than thinking the weather’s better someplace else, so let’s take a quick and random tour of the world, by way of the stranger bits of news I’ve found lately.

Irrelevant photo: elderflower–with a nettle snuggling up to it on the right.

Germany: An exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther tacking his 95 theses on a church door, and in the process kicking off the Reformation, includes a robot named BlessU-2, which can bless you in one of five languages (or eight according to a different source) and beams light from its hands. It can also recite a bible verse–maybe the same one over and over and maybe one per customer; I’m not sure.

The five languages are German, English, French, Spanish, and Polish. If you’d like to be blessed in any other language (or in any other religion, while we’re at it), you’re shit outta luck (unless there really are eight), but you can choose either a male or a female voice, which might ease your pain.

Just for the record, Luther’s theses were in Latin. Latin doesn’t seem to be one of the languages you can choose. There’s not a lot of call for it these days.

The Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau “is behind the initiative,” whatever that means, and hopes the robot will provoke debate, especially about whether a machine can bless you.

That kind of left me speechless, so I turned to a video of the robot (it’s in the first link), hoping for a little drama. Sadly, all that happens is that its hands light up. I was hoping lighting bolts would shoot out of its hands. Now that might make me feel I’d been blessed.

Britain: The church of England isn’t installing robots, but it is planning to add a digital dimension to its collection plates. It’s trying out contactless payment systems in 40 churches—if, that is, it can get around the problem of how to pick up a signal through the massive stone walls of those ancient churches.

May the robot bless it in any of five (or eight) languages and help it find a strong signal.

China: A Buddhist temple in China now has a robot monk that can chant mantras and explain basic Buddhist beliefs. I have no idea what it said in the video clip I just linked to, but the listeners thought it was pretty funny.

Canada just introduced its first—in fact, anyone’s first—glow-in-the-dark coin. It’s worth $2. Canadian dollars, in case that isn’t boringly obvious. If you turn off the lights, the coin’s northern lights glow green and blue.

I want one.

In India, a government ministry recommends that pregnant women avoid meat, eggs, and “impure thoughts.” Also “anger, attachment, hatred, and [in case it’s not the same thing as impure thoughts] lust.”

We can only wish them luck. Impure thoughts can travel through walls—yea, even through those of massive stone temples (or churches, not to mention the flimsiest bedroom ones)—and are extremely hard to avoid.

Or so I’m told.

Back in Britain, politicians are using WhatsApp to plot against (or possibly even for) each other and to make deals. Being electronic and all, the messages are highly leakable. So far, most of the leaks seem to be deliberate, but one MP, Angela Rayner, apparently forwarded a message to the wrong group, after which she apologized for “being a cow.”

I’d heard politicians were out of touch but honestly: Cows don’t use smart phones, Angela. The little buttons are too small for their hooves.

As long as we’re back in Britain, let’s stay a minute and drop in on a squabble of authors, even if only one side is squabbling. Joanna Trollope ripped into J.K. Rowling for using Twitter. She said it was a threat to the literary industry.

“Creating this mass following and tweeting several times a day is like wanting to be…Kim Kardashian,” she told the daily Mail. “Some writers like JK Rowling have this insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time, and that’s entirely driven by their ego.”

And talking to the Mail? That’s driven by a desire to engage in the most high-minded literary discussion, because that’s what people buy the Mail for.

Rowling (wisely) hasn’t bothered to respond, but all the way down here in Cornwall I heard her rolling her eyes.

And finally, everywhere: Or everywhere Gmail’s fingers reach, anyway. Google’s launching Smart Reply (it’s actually a relaunch, but never mind that)–an automated reply system that reads through your email and suggests answers you might want to send. According to Wired, “Google is assuming users want to offload the burdensome task of communicating with one another.”

I’m sure we do. I’ll have my robot contact your robot and they can meet for coffee. You and I don’t need to be involved at all.

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.

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.

Language

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?

Wigs

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?

Manners

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?

Of potholes and politics

People involved in British politics swear that politicians get elected (and unelected) mostly over potholes and garbage pickup, although it isn’t called garbage in Britain it’s called, um, something else. Not trash. And not dust, although the thing you put it in a dustbin, or a bin for short.

Okay, I googled it: It’s called rubbish, which is also what you’d call a team someone else supports.

Calling a team that is a great way to start a fight if you’re in a pub and it’s getting late and everyone’s well oiled. Just in case you need to know.

But I’m off topic again, aren’t I?

If, as someone famous once said, all politics are local, the residents of Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire are at the heart of political life. They’re worked up about their potholes. The council—that’s what you call local government, for those of you who need a translation—has been ducking the pothole issue, residents say, so in mid-May, after a rain had filled the potholes nicely, they floated a mass of rubber ducks on them. And called the BBC, which put some nifty photos online. I’m sure there’s a way to post them, but I have no idea what it is. You’ll just have to follow the link.

Relevant but fake photo: This is–as you may have figured out–a rubber duck. Or a plastic one but they’re called rubber ducks, so let’s not argue. We were getting on so well. The point is, it’s not in a pothole, it’s in a bowl in our back yard.

The Poke calls it the most British protest ever. I’m not sure what makes it so British, although duck races are a big thing at fundraisers and village fetes around here.

Fete, by the way, is pronounced fate. No, don’t ask me. I don’t understand it either. Besides, we’re talking about rubber ducks and it’s rude to interrupt.

For years, Wild Thing and I saw signs along the roads announcing duck races and for years we meant to go to one and didn’t. Then we found out they involved rubber ducks, not real ones, so now Wild Thing wants to raise a duck and show up with it tucked under her arm, saying, “I’ll thank you to enter my duck in the race.”

If it ever happens, I promise to post pictures, but I’m not sure a duckling and a cat are a good long-term combination.

Anyway, the only other reason I can think of for this being the most British protest ever is that the sense of humor has a particularly British tinge—dry, in spite of all that rain—but even so the claim seems a bit overdone in a country known for understatement. So maybe that should be “A moderately British protest.”

The BBC read through the county council’s website and quotes it as saying that any pothole the “depth of a coke can or the size of a dinner plate on a quiet carriageway” may need urgent attention.

If the ducks haven’t gotten them filled by now, I suggest that the residents follow up with a picnic—Coke cans, dinner plates, and whatever Oxfordshire offers as a substitute for the Cornish pasty.

You’ll find additional inspired ways to celebrate potholes in a second post on the Poke.

A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.

British traditions: May Day in Oxford

May Day swept past weeks ago, but that won’t stop us here at Notes. We’re not so small-minded that we’ll be bothered by a little thing like the calendar. I learned about the Oxford May Day celebrations from a newspaper photo and caption, and the clipping just rose to the top of the swamp I call my computer table. So let’s slip back in time.

Oxford celebrates May Day in traditional style, and Britain takes its traditions seriously. At 6 a.m., the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin; don’t ask; no answer will make sense of it anyway) College choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus” from the Great Tower as the sun comes up.

A quick reality check before we go on, though: The sun came up at 5:36 that day. I just looked it up. But who am I to argue with tradition?

Marginally relevant photo: This is a flower–a lupine if you want to be specific. May Day has to do with the coming of summer, when flowers bloom. I know, it was a stretch, but we got there.

According to one source, the choir has been doing this for 500 years. Presumably not with the same singers. According to another source, the song was composed in the 17th century. I just counted on my fingers and that would make it 400 and some years old (probably—we can’t trust my fingers when they’re counting stuff), but if tradition says it’s 500 years old and the sun’s just coming up, okay, it’s 500 years and the sun just rose. See its little red dome poking over the horizon?

Yes, England is a cloudy country. That’s why it can have a 500-year-old tradition and in all that time never notice that it’s mis-timed the sunrise.

After the song, the bells ring out for twenty minutes and everyone goes deaf.

Sorry, that’s “approximately twenty minutes” and everyone goes deaf. I don’t want to misrepresent this.

After that, there’s morris dancing on the streets, breakfast in cafes and pubs all over the city, and if I’m reading this right, a whole shitload of drinking, which starts the night before and continues until everyone falls over. Or (see below) jumps into the river.

Oh, and there’s some deeply traditional samba dancing.

Samba was introduced to Britain in the 1980s by, among others, the passionate anti-apartheid activist Steve Kitson. Since then, Britons have been dancing it so intensely that by now it’s been going on for 500 years.

Magdalen (pronounced—oh, one way or another; I’ll get to that in a minute) Bridge is closed to traffic from 3 a.m. till 9 a.m., but it’s open to pedestrians. In the 1980s, people started jumping off it into the river Cherwell, and in 2005 some 40 people were hurt, including one who was left paralyzed. The river can be low at that time of year. The city works madly to discourage jumpers. Some of whom have been drinking for 500 years by then.

I’m going to be deeply discouraged if someone convinces me that the song really is 500 years old and that the sun rose at 6. In the west.

Now, about Magdalen Bridge. The college is pronounced maudlin. Magdalen Street is pronounced magdalen. Magdalen Road is pronounced maudlin. The bridge? I don’t know. My best guess is that the M, G, D. L, and N are silent.

I’ll write about morris dancing in a separate post. Stay tuned.

What really matters in British politics

You have to love British politics. We just had an election in which the prime minister, Theresa May—at least as I type this she’s still the prime minister, although I wouldn’t put any large amount of money on that lasting—was opposed in her bid to continue as a member of parliament by Lord Buckethead, Elmo, and Howling “Laud” Hope.

But before we go into detail, a bit of background for anyone who isn’t used to British elections: In spite of being the prime minister, May had to run for her seat in parliament, just like any other member of parliament. All prime ministers do. If she couldn’t keep her seat, she wouldn’t be prime minister anymore.

It must be humbling to go from wheeling a dealing and giving orders to begging for votes on equal terms with the rest of your party.

Especially when people don’t take it seriously.

Irrelevant and not particularly good photo: Buttercups. Sorry–I’ll try to do better next time.

Let’s start with the most dramatic of her opponents, Lord Buckethead, who wears a black cape and has a black bucket–or something black and vaguely bucketish–on his head. As far as I can figure out, he ran without the backing of any party. Political parties can be short sighted like that. Think of the publicity they could’ve gotten.

He describes himself as an “intergalactic space lord.” The article I learned this from says his real name is unknown, although for all we know he asked Google to translate his name from intergalactic space lordish into English and it comes out as Lord Buckethead.

Note to all reporters: Check your assumptions before you pass them off as facts. This stuff matters.

Anyway, Theresa May’s campaign, both in her own constituency and around the country on behalf of her party, consisted of droning the slogan “strong, stable leadership” at every possible opportunity. Buckethead promised strong but “not entirely stable leadership.”

That won him 249 votes.

He (or someone else with the same name and a bucket on his head) also ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992, when they were the prime ministers. In Britain, you don’t have to live in the constituency you’re running for office in—or even pretend to live in it—so running against a prime minister? It’s something you can do on a whim, as long as you have the filing fee, which is £500, and meet a list of fairly boring qualifications, such as not being a member of the police or armed forces, a civil servant, or a judge.

Buckethead apparently qualifies, and he even has policies. One is providing safe, effective opposition to Theresa May. Another is turning a safe seat (that means a parliamentary seat that a party’s almost guaranteed to win) into an ejector seat. A third is investing in schools, the National Health Service, social care, local infrastructure, and “other things humans vote for.”

He also promised to nationalize the singer Adele and abolish all lords except himself. And just to prove he’s serious about this, he has a campaign song.

Okay, I’ve heard better singers. Hell, I’m a better singer, because he doesn’t set the bar very high. But then the better singers I’m talking about weren’t singing from inside a bucket, so we should probably cut the guy a little slack.

Elmo also ran against Theresa May, but he only got 3 votes, probably because he appeared under the name Bobby Smith instead of Elmo. I mean, Bobby Smith? Who’s going to vote for him? On the other hand, he got to appear on the platform, dressed as Elmo, alongside May and Lord Buckethead when the votes were counted.

Lord Buckethead stole the show, though.

Still sticking with May’s constituency, the Monster Raving Loony Party (“vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party—The only sane thing to do in a world gone mad”) backed Howling “Laud” Hope, who won 119 votes and got to take the quotation marks home with him, since they appeared on the ballot. I don’t know if he had to change his name legally to appear on the ballot that way. It’s something Elmo should ask him about.

“Laud” Hope was also on stage, although looking at the BBC’s photo—which is wonderful—I’m not sure which one he is since he wasn’t in costume. The party could learn a thing or three from the independents.

But enough of Theresa May’s constituency. Let’s move on. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had to run against Mr. Fish Finger (sometimes spelled Fishfinger), who according to the Guardian (see the first link) upstaged Farron’s victory speech.

Fish Finger took the name legally after a Twitter poll of 1,000 people showed that 90% of them would rather be led by a fish finger than by Farron.

What’s a Twitter poll? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you ask 1,000 of your closest friends to agree with you.

Mr Finger (or maybe that’s Mr. Fishfinger) crowdfunded his campaign, raising £2,301. His page says he trusts “to Cod that you will keep giving.”

I was having a good time with all this until I read his twitter page, which (to the extent that I can figure out what he’s saying) is full of anti-immigrant crap and bad puns. Okay, full disclosure: the puns were on the crowdfunding page and I was willing to overlook them until I decided I hated the guy.

Strong opinions on the subject? Nah. I treasure my objectivity.

Still, he upstaged Tim Farron beautifully during the vote count. And got 309 votes. Plus he’s now the proud owner of a ratty-looking fish finger costume, and Halloween is coming.

And that, my friends, is what really goes on in British politics.

Emergency calls in Britain

What constitutes a crisis in Britain? Not much, if you ask some people, so periodically the ambulance/police/fire/coast guard emergency number publicizes a handful of the weirder calls they get in a—doomed, I’m sure—effort to make people get serious about this. They’re being tweeted at #ThinkBeforeYouDial!

So here we go: a quick visit to what the emergency number—999—deals with.

Someone wanted to borrow a charger for their phone’s battery.

Someone complained that the groomer had shaved their dog instead of trimming it.

Someone asked when the betting shops close.

Irrelevant photo: wild gladiolus–also called whistling jacks in the Scilly Isles.

Someone complained that McDonald’s didn’t give him a Monopoly sticker with his drink.

Someone asked, “Will I get arrested if I move my housemate’s banana?”

Yes, almost surely.

Someone said, “My TV is broken and Eastenders in about to start.”

Someone wanted the number for British Gas.

Someone’s hamster was sick.

One thoughtful soul wanted the non-emergency police number, presumably so they wouldn’t have to bother 999.

Someone wanted a takeaway place prosecuted because his food was 45 minutes late.

One tweet was from what seems to be a German police force and I don’t know any German, so when I was offered a translation of course I took it. It says, according to the translation program, “Yesterday #NoNotruf, today #DaFürDich. Tomorrow then there is also a.”

That strikes me as a genuine emergency. Of course, I worked as in publishing before I retired, not in emergency services. My definition of an emergency may not be much use in the real world.

*

This may or may not be related, but the World Health Organization reports that Britons drink almost twice the global average. People in Britain who are over fifteen drank 12.3 liters of pure alcohol—or its equivalent, since I doubt anyone’s chugging pure alcohol. I think that’s per year but for all I know it’s per hour. The worldwide average is 6.4 liters. I’d give you a link, but everything I find online is from earlier years and the article was in the Western Morning News, which has pretty much disappeared from the web lately.

Of course any worldwide average includes Muslim-majority countries, where I wouldn’t expect to find a huge number of drinkers. That would lower the global average. On the other hand, I’m hopeless with numbers. Maybe even after you allow for a significant number of nondrinkers in the sample, being over the average means you’re drunk on your ass.

I can testify that people around here drink pretty heavily. And after they drink, a lot of them sing. Some of them fight. A few of them dial 999.

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.