What people really want to know about Britain, part sixteenish

What do people ask their search engines to tell them about Britain? Or, to be more modest about it, what do they ask that leads them to Notes? A few sensible things, but never mind those, we’ll explore the stranger ones. 

Place Names

british place names pronunciation dictionary

A pronunciation dictionary would be handy but the whole point of spelling your hometown one way and pronouncing it some other way is to leave outsiders looking silly. Dulwich? That’s pronounced like a dull itch. Beaulieu is Bewlee. The unpronounceable-looking Ightham Mote? That’s Item Mote. And (I always toss this one in) Woolfardisworthy is Woolsery. 

Semi-relevant photo: The waterfall at St. Nectan’s Glen, which is pronounced St. Nectan’s Glen, which in turn is no fun at all so it’s also called St. Nectan’s Kieve, which is pronounced keeve.

why do they not call england great britain anymore

Please sit down so the shock doesn’t leave you with a torn muscle: They never did. But the universe holds an inexhaustible store of ignorance about this so we’ll never be rid of the question.

Of course it would help if the country very formerly known as England, then known as the United Kingdom, and after that as the United Kingdom of several confusing places and in other contexts, for rational but confusing reasons, known as Britain and also as Great Britain and occasionally as You There, would settle on one name and somehow get rid of all the others even though they make perfect sense if you can only get your head around their differing uses and meanings. 

Guys, I know its your country and you can call it what you like, but are you sure this is a good idea? For a good portion of  the rest of the world, wrestling with your name(s) is like reading a Russian novel: You have to figure out that Ivan is the same person as Vanya and Vanechka (if I’ve got that one right–don’t trust me too far on it) and Ivan Borisovich and Grushkov, but they’re all used for different reasons by different people and convey different relationships to him. And of course, there are fourteen other important characters and twenty-five minor ones, all with an equal number of names. 

But to answer the question, they never did call England Great Britain. You’ll find a link to an actual explanation of this further down. But in the meantime, since we’re talking about Russian novels:

War and Peace

berwick still at war; also berwick on tweed at war with russia

It’s not. What’s even more disappointing (since this would have been a bloodless war, without even diplomatic consequences), it doesn’t seem to have ever been. 

The story goes that little Berwick-upon-Tweed was listed in the declaration that started the Crimean War but was left off the peace treaty, stranding it forever in a war that it had to carry on all by its tiny self. I’ve done just enough research to learn that people who do genuine research have discredited the tale. Although, hey, it could all be a conspiracy to cover up something huge and dangerous. You can’t prove it isn’t, can you? The absence of evidence could be evidence of how big the cover-up is.

The story of why it might have gotten a separate mention in either a declaration of war or a peace treaty, since larger towns didn’t, is (like many things British) convoluted and interesting. You’ll find it here

Profound Philosophical Questions

why do we saygreat britain

What was the person who typed this trying to ask? Was it:

  1. Why do we say “Great Britain” at all? or
  2. Why do we say, “Great, Britain,” in a tone of encouragement or celebration? or
  3. Why do we say “Great Britain” when we could say, for example, “saxophone” or “peanut butter”? 

If it’s 3, it’s probably because Great Britain is on our minds at the crucial moment and peanut butter and saxophones aren’t. 

Is it unwise to think of peanut butter and saxophones at the same time? It’s not good if you’re a saxophonist. If you’re not, it’s probably okay, although if you let the mental image get too vivid (and I have, unfortunately) it can be unpleasant.

If it’s 2, it means Britain’s doing well in some international sports uproar.

If the question is 1, however, it’s because that’s the place we were talking about, so saying “France” or “Puerto Rico” or “Berwick-on-Tweed” wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But honestly, why do we say anything at all?

I do hope that helps, although I’m not optimistic about it. 

What does it all mean, bartender?

It means I should embed a link to an earlier post on the subject, that’s what it means.

why does beer in london taste better than thr us

Because you had too much before you sat down at the computer. Also because you were a tourist in London and happier there. It wasn’t your real life. It’s (relatively) easy to be happy when you’re not in your real life. Even the beer tastes better.

It’s also made differently. Different countries, different brands, different approaches to making the stuff. Way back when I was less than a hundred years old, one of the Minnesota beers ran an ad campaign implying that the water made a difference. I don’t mean to sound naive, but maybe it does.

If it makes you feel any better, the bagels are better in New York. 

Tourism

how english people feel about american tourists

Let’s start with the American part of the question, although without getting into the problem attached to calling one country by the name of two entire continents. English people (at least the ones who are willing to go on record) all (every last one of them) think our accents are charming. Or they claim to. Maybe they’re being diplomatic. 

Everyone seems to agree that we’re noisy, and there’s a lot of empirical evidence to back this up. 

A lot of them think we say water and butter in the most amusing way possible.  

Beyond that, I’m not sure you’ll find any sort of unanimity.

The tourist part of the question? Tourists anywhere are a pain in the neck. Local economies are desperate for their money, but that doesn’t mean anyone loves them. 

Sorry. I thought someone had better tell you.

americans are more tolerant of brits than the other way around

Sez who?

how do people recognize american tourists?

I asked for help on this one.

M. says it’s by their shorts and tee shirts.

Both I. and C. say it’s by their noise level.

I say it’s by the way they butt into line–or (since a British friend had no idea what I meant when I said this), jump the queue. 

Were you hoping to skulk around incognito? 

Requests Important for Cultural Information

do they have brownies (desserts) in the uk

Do you mention “(desserts)” to distinguish them from the junior version of Girl Scouts who in the U.S. are called (no, I have no idea why) Brownies? In that case, no. They have Girl Guides in the U.K., not Girl Scouts, and girls as young as five can join. You don’t want a junior version when five is the minimum age. It leads to crying and running into the street. 

People who type questions into search engines have an obsession with brownies (of the dessert variety). And with whether they exist in (depending on the phase of the moon) Britain, Great Britain, the U.K., or England. The answer is no. In order to distract us from the Brexit fiasco, a tyrannical government has banned them. To shut off the supply, spy networks have been established to search out people who deal in them.

This, of course, means there’s a lot of money to be made, so restaurants sometimes take the risk but hide them under random combinations of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit,  and chocolate syrup.

Someone’s going to take that seriously. I just know they will.

in england what color are the mailboxes and boobs

Well, dear, the mailboxes are red. The boobs are generally the same color as the rest of the person wearing them, although on people whose skin has tanned they’ll be a bit lighter than the parts that see the sun. Unless, of course, they’ve also seen some sun.

Why did you feel you had to ask?

visiting britain do they talk about the weather

Not as often as people ask about whether they talk about the weather.

I’m reasonably sure the British unleashed that stereotype on themselves, and that they think it’s funny. But correct me if I’m wrong.

In fact, the British do talk about the weather, but then so do Minnesotans. Both groups also talk about other things. Both groups believe they have a lot of weather to talk about. 

It’s okay, O prospective visitor. You can drop by without packing a prefabricated set of weather observations. If someone says the weather’s wonderful, all you have to do is agree with them. If someone says the weather’s terrible, you agree with them too. Don’t tell them how much better or worse it is where you come from. Nothing awful will happen if you do, but you won’t kept your side of the unwritten bargain.

is bell ringing dangerous?

Mostly, no. But after you stop giggling, you can google bell ringers’ injuries and find out about everything from rope burns to broken bones to why giving the rope a good hard yank if one of the bells is hard to ring might just bring the bell down on your head.

what do the english think of americans right now?

That we’ve made some, um, strange political choices. Or possibly that we’ve lost our minds. That’s not a universal opinion but Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that it’s fairly common.

As for me–sorry to get serious on you–I am completey horrified by what the country’s been doing on the Mexican border. I’d like to say that I don’t recognize the country I grew up and lived most of my life in, but that’s not entirely true. The seeds of this have been lying around for a long time. This flowering has left me thinking about how easy it is to come to terms with evil. 

does english beer have less alcohol than united states; also enhlish beer compared to usa

The United States is a big country. Not as big as Russia. Not as big as Canada or China. But still, big. On the other hand, since it’s a country instead of an alcoholic drink, it’s hard to find a reliable measurement of its alcohol content. Or its taste if that’s what the second question is asking about. 

That’s not taste as in the famous H.L. Mencken quote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”–especially since that isn’t what he actually wrote. He wrote something baggier, snobbier, and less memorable. 

But no, we’re talking about the taste of English–on enhlish–beer compared to the U.S., which is like comparing apples and radial tires. That makes it a question no one can answer.

As an aside, lots of people want to know about British (or English, or Enhlish) and American beer. Mostly they want to know which is stronger. If I wrote about nothing but beer, I’d have more subscribers but they’d all be too plastered to read.

church of england prdinad funding

If they get any money that way, I haven’t been able to find out about it. It could be another cover-up.

Miscellaneous

what did people call themselves if they were from great britain and ireland

Some called themselves Saoirse, which was awkward for English-only speakers, because they go into brainlock when that many vowels bump up against each other. Some called themselves–well, you don’t want me to go into the full list of possible first names, do you? 

I’m not sure what time period we’re supposed to be talking about. The past tense covers a long stretch of time, but if it’s a relatively recent period we’ll just remind ourselves that in these days of intercultural mingling (and they’ve been going on much longer than most people think) they’re no longer limited to names that comes from English and Gaelic. They could call themselves Ahmed or Svetlana and still be from both places. And other people could call them that as well.

If, on the other hand, the person who asked that was looking for British a parallel for Irish-American, I doubt they’ll find anything as compact. A friend describes herself as being British, of Irish heritage. It’s clunky but its accurate, and it’s  not at all the same thing as Anglo-Irish.

putting the kettle on

I have no idea what someone was hoping to find by typing this into a search engine–maybe an invitation to drop in and have a nice cuppa. 

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this brushes up against one of the friendliest things you can say in British: either I’ll put the kettle on, or Shall I put the kettle on? 

I’m not sure why it has to be shall instead of should, but it does seem to work that way. 

Footnote: I’ve lived in Britain for thirteen years now but I still don’t have a great ear from British speech, so I could be wrong about that shall. I can tell you, though, with absolute certainty, that getting dialog right in someone else’s version of your language is no easy trick. I’ve seen British journalists, whose training emphasizes getting their quotes right, substitute the British phrases they thought they heard for the ones some American they were interviewing would have said. The examples I can remember involve an American talking about his mum and someone else talking about a drinks cabinet.  

We–or most of us, anyway–seem to have an over-eager little translator built into our brains, who takes any number of the interesting things we hear and turns them into the predictable things we expect to hear and then engraves them in our memories that way. Which is a long-winded way of saying what I already said: I could be wrong about the shall.

It’s also a warning: Unless you’re goddamn good, don’t try to write (never mind speak) in someone else’s version of your language.

ellen hawley

I deny all knowledge of her. She’s a know-it-all and a nuisance.

What people want to know about Britain, part thirteen-ish

It’s time to dip into the search engine questions that lead unsuspecting souls to Notes from the U.K. and see what it is they want to know about this green and pleasant land. The questions are in boldface type and I’ve reproduced them in all their oddity. And because my goal in life is to enlighten the ignorant world, I’ve done my best to provide the information they wanted. Even though the people who asked the questions will never wander back to find the answers. It keeps me occupied and mostly out of trouble.

CULTURE & LANGUAGE

good manners of britain

Yes, Britain has good manners. So do other countries, but no one notices because we’ve all been trained since early childhood to think British manners are good manners and other countries’ manners are rude flaming ignorance. We’ve also been trained to think a British accent is classy and other accents need a bath. This is all rampant bullshit, of course, and a hand-me-down from the British empire, but good luck convincing anyone of it.

When I say “a British accent,” what I really mean is an accent the listener can identify as British, which won’t come anywhere close to the full range of British accents. And when I say “no one” and “we’ve all,” what I really mean is the group of people I happen to be thinking about. I’m not quite silly enough to think I’m talking about everyone

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

why do americans say derby instead of ‘darby’

Because that’s how it’s spelled. D e r b y: derby. Americans are naive like that. In spite of all the evidence that points the other way–and, boy, does the English language point the other way–they still think that if a word’s spelled with an E it gets pronounced as if it had an E.

Silly people.

brits think americans are too loud

THEY DO? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

swear words england vs american

If you have to look up swear words, they won’t work for  you. Swear words are very particular about who they’ll work for. Stick with the vocabulary you understand. It’ll have more impact. 

should word anglophile be capitaluzed?

Capitaluzed? No. Some people capitalize it, though. Others don’t. Because I’m retired (I used to be an editor; now I’m just an everyday fussbudget), I’m not going to chase down definitive sources. You’re probably safest capitalizing it, but you could defend either choice. 

Which isn’t much of an argument. People defend all kinds of stupidity. That doesn’t make it right.

POLITICS

should all male mps wear a jacket in the commons

Oh, absolutely. Otherwise British politics would degenerate into the kind of farce where people who support staying in the EU throw all their weight behind leaving because it keeps them in power for another twenty minutes; where people argue against a second referendum in the name of democracy; and where amateurs run the government. Heavens to Betsy, we wouldn’t want that.

stockings in the house of commons

It’s not smart to make guesses about anything as improbable as the British parliament, but I’m about to: I’m fairly sure Christmas stockings don’t play much of a role there. The MPs are too old to believe in Santa Claus, although a few still claim to. On top of which, they go home over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so if Santy exists, he has to look for them there.   

mps are not allowed to wear armor

This is as shocking as it is true: They are not allowed to wear armor in the House of Commons, and it’s a stain on British democracy.

On the other hand, they (like everyone else in the land) are allowed to wear armor outside the House of Commons. On the train going home, say. At the corner store. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and they’ll get some odd looks, but I’ve never heard of a law that  prevents it.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

If search engine questions are a fair representation of what the world’s interested in, the world is obsessed with brussels sprouts. I could turn Notes into the leading (and only) brussels sprouts blog and make a real success of it. Depending, of course, on how we define success.

Here’s a sampling of the brussels sprouts questions.

why do we eat sprouts at christmas

To make sure we’re on Santa’s good list.

why do we have sprouts at christmas bbc

Good question, BBC. The world’s waiting to hear from you on this important topic. Why are you leaving it to amateurs like me to fabricate answers? This is the height of irresponsibility.

the tradition of why we eat spr54otes

The truly traditional Christmas dinner doesn’t involve spr54otes, it involves plain sprouts, of the brussels variety. The 54 was added in recent years as people became aware of how important fiber is to a healthy diet. And the U? It still feels bad about Americans having dropped it from so many words and it’s sitting out this round to make a point about how much it has to contribute.

why do cross a sprout

To get to the other side?

plumpudding brussel

No, people. There is a limit. Never put brussels sprouts in your plum pudding.

OTHER FOOD & DRINK

what percentage is american beer

That depends on what percentage of what. The world’s beer output?

what do they call brownies in england

Brownies.

SIZE

why are english roads so narrow / why are english streets so narrow

Because of the houses on either side, some of which were there before cars came along. Also because of the fields. And the hedges, and the stone walls. And because, you know, they’ve been that size for a long time and it works, so why mess with it? And incidentally because they take less space.

Isn’t it odd how people go to another country, full of excitement to see something different, and then judge if by the standards of the place they left. And find it failed to meet them.

why is britain called great britain when it is small

Because it has an inferiority complex and needs to puff itself up as much as possible. We try not to talk about it, okay?

TRADITIONS

yale door company knob throwing contest

You can find Yale locks in many American doors. And, according to a quick internet search, also in Australian, Indian, New Zealand (New Zealandish?), and British doors. If the company makes doors, as opposed to locks, they’re keeping the information off the internet. But doors have door knobs, and some door knobs have locks in them, and Yale does make those. So we have a connection here.

But the whole thing breaks down after that. The Dorset knob throwing contest isn’t about throwing door knobs, much less whole doors, it’s about throwing a biscuity thing called a knob, which is a bit sweet and, at least as I remember it, too light to throw well, but you shouldn’t take my word on that, you should go and find out for yourself. The next contest is on May 5, 2019.

Leave your door at home. Also your door knob. They’ll provide all the Dorset knobs you need.  

 

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

*

After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.

*

A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.

*

Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.

*

Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.

*

A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.

*

Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.

*

Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.

*

A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”

*

A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]

*

Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.

*

Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.

*

In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 

Allegedly.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part I’ve forgotten what

It’s time to review what the world wants to know about Britain.

How do we measure that? Why, by looking at what leads people to the definitive voice on all things British, a.k.a. this blog. As usual, I’ve preserved the questions in all their original oddity, including the odd spelling and the lack of question marks and capital letters. Where I’ve gotten several related (but equally odd and therefore worthy) questions, I’ve combined them.

FOOD & DRINK

make cross in sprout religious; is there a religius reason we put crosses into sprouts; english eating brussel sprouts

As we edge closer to Christmas, the flow of questions about brussels sprouts gets heavier, but they form a steady drip throughout the year. I can only assume these come mostly from British people because who else knows that brussels sprouts are as essential to the British Christmas as two desserts and eight reindeer?

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: hydrangea

The crosses at the bottom? The religious justification as I heard it (and don’t ask where because by now I haven’t a clue) is that it was to let the devil out. Or the evil spirits. That may or may not be what anybody in the past actually believed. People have a habit of working backward to come up for a reason for something they see being done.

So why did people start doing it? Probably so the stems would cook as quickly as the leaves. I used to nick the stems but haven’t bothered in years. It doesn’t seem to make a difference and if I’ve eaten any evil spirits I’m none the worse for it. But then, I wasn’t very good to start with and I’m not a fussy cook, so you shouldn’t take my word for it.

But why do the English eat sprouts at Christmas? Because they do. And because they ripen at a time when not many other vegetables can be bothered to.

In 2015 I wrote a post about this and said, recklessly, that the British eat them at Christmas because the Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. I thought I was very funny and was convinced it was a ridiculous enough claim that no one would take me seriously. Then some blogger linked to it as if it was Truth with a capital R. I still thought I was funny but had just enough decency to also feel bad about it.

In late September of this year, someone else linked to it, this time treating it as Truth with a capital U. So I’ve now prefaced the post with a health and safety warning (the British are big on health and safety warnings; the Druids really did worship them) explaining that no one knows much about what the Druids did, that the article contains a slight exaggeration, and that the writer may contain nuts.

I also sent the other blogger an apology.

The worst of it is that I still think it’s funny. Although I continue to feel bad. I’m sure that makes it okay.

do they have peeps in the uk

That has to be from an American wondering if civilized life is possible outside the borders of the U.S. of A., because Peeps are the measure of civilized life.

Peeps are bright colored, over-sugared, marshmallowy things that have been extruded from some pipe in an industrial kitchen, which forms them into vaguely chickish shapes. At least they look like chicks if your eye’s been trained to see them as chicks. They’re known for giving nutritionists conniption fits. What’s a conniption fit? No idea, but I have it on good authority that you don’t want to have one.

Twenty seconds of research tells me that peeps are  sold in the U.S. and Canada. So yes, civilized life is possible outside of the U.S., but only in Canada.

Why did anybody look deeply enough into the question to read whatever I may have written on the subject? Because, people, Peeps matter.  

our American beers weaker; compare alcohol content budweiser uk and canada; beer alcolohol content uk vs isa; why does beer in england taste better than usa beer?

The strength of American and British beer occupies a large portion of the internet’s collective mind. And by the time that mind goes online to research alcohol content, it’s addled by all the hands-on research it did first. 

That explains the typos.

british peopme chocolate chips; leom drizzle where did it come from

These are what people want to know about once they’ve drunk all the beer in the house.

what do the british call baking-powder biscuits

For the most part, nothing: 97.6% of British citizens have never heard of them. And 93.7% of all statistics are made up. But gasp, wheeze anyway because the world contains people who never heard of baking powder biscuits. The thing is, people don’t just talk differently in different countries, they eat differently.

When I lived in the U.S., my partner and I just called them biscuits, but she’s Texan and we didn’t need to explain what we meant. Now that we live in Britain, we call them baking powder biscuits so that friends won’t expect them to be cookies, because what Americans call cookies the British call biscuits.  

WEATHER

londoner never talking about weather and how miserable (x2)

There are two  things the non-British think they know about Britain: 1. The place is wet, which means it’s miserable. 2. People talk about the weather and nothing else. Beyond that, I don’t know what the question means but someone does because I got it twice.

PLACE NAMES

why is worcester only 2 syllables

Given the oddities of English spelling and the even odder oddities of British place names, there’s only one possible answer: Because.

are we still called great britain

Yes, dear. It’s a geographical designation and no one’s sawed off a part of the country yet.

widemouth bay pronunciation   

Widmuth.    

how to pronounce river eye uk

I can’t even begin to guess, but I can tell you how to find out. First you have to locate it, which is going to be messy because there are two of them, one in Leicestershire (talk about pronunciation oddities) and the other in Scotland. The Scottish one is also called the Eye Water. And at its mouth is a town called Eyemouth.

You have to love this country. It’s weird enough to make your eyes water.  

Once you’ve figured out which river you want, you have to find someone local–preferably someone without a sense of humor–and ask how to pronounce the river. If at all possible, avoid trying to pronounce it when you ask, because you’ll get it wrong. Warning: If you’ve asked someone with a sense of humor, they’ll tell you it’s pronounced “brussels sprouts” and then spend the rest of the year giggling.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

No one without a strong local connection can be trusted to do anything more than guess at the pronunciation of anyplace in Britain. I recently got an automated message reminding me that I have an appointment coming up in Tavistock, which is pronounced TAVistock. The voice pronounced it tavISStock. And Tavistock’s one of the easy ones.

british place names that sound like clothes

Sorry, but I can’t think of any. If you want kitchen appliances, though, Towster is pronounced toaster. The kitchen appliance department is straight ahead, toward the back of the store. The clothing department is hauntingly empty and needs to be filled, so if you know of any pronounced like clothes (or, what the hell, other kitchen appliances or body parts or anything else particularly bizarre), do contribute to the general weirdness by leaving a comment. 

WIGS

I probably get as many questions about wigs as I do about beer. Most of them repeat the ones I’ve already quoted, but every so often a new one comes in. Including this:

attorney living with wigs with you and orange on the bishop hat

Anyone who knows how to answer that, please oh please leave a comment. I can’t do this alone, people.   

BRITISH CULTURE

what do british people think of american accents

Oh, every last one of them thinks they’re fabulous. The British are known for all thinking the same thing. That’s why the two main political parties are so gloriously united.

show me a tricorn hat worn in the house of lords

I could, but it’s not nice to make fun of the sartorially challenged.

Oh, go on, then. You twisted my arm.

what does it mean when it says I hope your birthday is tickety-boo

It means someone sent you a birthday card that’s been around since the 1930s.

do british people say spifing

No. They might, just remotely, say spiffing, but you’ll go blue in the face if you hold your breath till someone does. I also get questions about spiffing. I am now Britain’s formost spiffing expert.  

in what way is folk music similar to christmas carols

Well, both are music and as such involve musical notes. They also involve words. Both can be sung either well or badly but you could say that about all songs. A large part of both can be sung by people without much musical background–that’s their beauty and their limitation. They come out of a tradition where people sang because they were having a good time, or at least because they were drunk. Some people were better at it than others, but no one–originally–was a professional. Both lean toward the idea that people will join in.

Christmas carols were originally a folk tradition and for a while were looked down on for it.

Sorry to get all serious on you. 

PROBLEMATIC ASSUMPTIONS

why was great britain named england in victorian times?

It happened back when the country was a teenager and had one of those identity crises that teenagers are prone to. The country thought England sounded better than Britain and hoped that would make it more popular. It changed its name back to Britain after Victoria died and it doesn’t like to talk about it now, so could we move on, please? Show a little respect here. We were all young once. And if you’re still young, you were once younger.

And no, please don’t link to that to explain how to unmuddle the names Britain, Great Britain, England, and the United Kingdom. Try this post instead. 

in england, the speaker of the house is not allowed to speak

Which is why he (and at the moment he is a he) is called the speaker.

photograph of cockwomble

A womble is a  creature invented for a BBC children’s show. You can hear the womble song here, and I’m sure you’ll be a better person if you have to fortitude to listen all the way to the end. I didn’t, but then I’m not a better person. It’s not, technically speaking, a photograph, since the creatures run around with tubas (have you ever tried running with a tuba while dressed in a womble suit?) and other stuff, but it’s close enough. 

The cockwomble was not invented by the BBC and if you’ve been called one you were not on the receiving end of a compliment. You won’t find a photo of one because it’s not an actual thing, as in it doesn’t exist, but you can find images for cockwombles here. My favorite is the ribbon for International Cockwomble Day. 

letterboxes invented in uk

Well, no, they don’t seem to have been invented in the U.K. They were introduced in Paris, in 1653. As far as I can tell, the first one in Britain was introduced in 1809. 

I haven’t dug into this very deeply, so I’m not 600% sure the dates are the absolute firsts. But the world–or at least the internet, which isn’t exactly the same thing but does exist within the world–contains a pretty large group of people interested in mailboxes. Or letterboxes, which are the same thing in a different place.

I’m not sure why the wording is that they were introduced, not invented but we’ll work with it.

what is causing all the problems with letter boxes in England

It’s true that British letterboxes have been gathering in city centers late at night to guzzle beer and sing Christmas carols. Residents report feeling too intimidated to ask them to keep it down and the police haven’t taken the situation seriously enough to intervene effectively. No one knows what’s causing it. And no one knows why I put this in the incorrect assumptions section.

Don’t link to this either.

CORRECT ASSUMPTIONS

england is not britain

It took a while, but we finally got that straightened out.

why is it wrong to say we all came from britian

Just off the top of my head, I’d say it’s because not all of us did. But credit for knowing something was wrong there.

ODD QUESTIONS

puffing pants; puffling pants

I was baffled by why the phrase was leading anyone here. Other than wearing a random selection, what do I know about clothes? But it turns out that back in 2016 (remember 2016? It came right before 2017) John Evans left a comment that said, “In the recent BBC4 comedy series about Shakespeare (Upstart Crow), there was an episode in which Shakespeare (brilliantly played by David Mitchell) encounters ‘puffling pants’. Ah, life would be so much more fun if everyone wore puffling pants.”

So that explains why questions about puffling pants find their way to me. It doesn’t explain why so many people care, but I got enough question about them, with a variety of spellings, to make me wonder if humanity really should survive.

For a while, I thought they were some current style. I’m dyslexic about fashion, so be a little kind about that, okay?

See what you’ve done, John?

saudi news

I’ve made no headway in figuring out why this one landed on my doorstep. Lord Google, explain thyself.

onterage goshen ny

Ditto. But that’s probably entourage.

what is hefeweizen

Wheat. In German. Lord Google helped me out with that one, because the only German I know is gesundheit, and by now that’s English.

but he prefers keeping his private life out of the media as much as possible

I can see why he’d feel that way. Whoever he is.

coke fabric yard

I get regular blasts of this question, and I can’t resist quoting it when I review the questions that lure people into my spider web. Unfortunately, quoting it reinforces the link between the phrase and Notes. In another couple of years, I’ll be the world’s foremost expert on whatever the hell it means.

best trader joe’s meats

I’m a vegetarian and probably the wrong person to ask about this.

And with that, I think I’ve enlightened you enough for one week. Stay out of trouble if you can. It’s a very strange world out there.

That was your health and safety warning. Be healthy. And safe.

What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish

What do the wide-eyed innocents of the internet want to know about Britain? Or, to change that to a more accurate form of the same question, what do they ask that leads them here?

All sorts of strange stuff. Sometimes even sensible stuff, but we’ll skip that. It’s boring. As usual, the questions appear wearing the clothes they wandered in with, which usually means they don’t have question marks or capital letters and they sometimes use creative spelling. I’ve added italics so we can tell the questions from the answers.

what do mps wear

Clothes, and as a rule not particularly interesting ones. You want exotic, go see what Black Rod wears.

Irrelevant (and, um, soft focused) photo: a bee (yes, it is there) in a strange flower whose name, as usual, I don’t know.

why are there hedges on the side of the roads in england

This came in twice–same wording, different days–so someone, not having found the answer they wanted, came back to see if they couldn’t find the answer they wanted in the same place where they didn’t find it the day before. So it must be important. Let’s answer it:

It was hard to drive when the hedges were in the middle, so many and many a year ago the Department of Middle-of-the-Road Hedges became the Department of Roadside Hedgeways and all hedges were moved from the center to the side. The accident rate went down dramatically and everyone has been much happier. They didn’t live ever after–the would be asking too much–but they did live longer.

Wiseassery aside, however, England’s hedges are monuments to a lot of history and shelter to a lot of wildlife. I’ve been meaning to write about them for a long time but somehow never get around to it. I’ll write myself yet another note and see if I actually do it this time.

who has right of way on one lane country roads

This is complicated. Unless a sign gives priority to traffic from one direction, no one in particular. This leads to the occasional standoff, but they’re rare. Basically, the person who’s closer to a wide spot where two cars can pass should back up. Sometimes, though, one driver (generally a visitor) freezes, in which case the more competent driver should take charge of the situation and back up. Or the nicer one.

For the most part, drivers are impressively polite about it, working it out seamlessly and finishing with the driver who did’t back up giving a small wave to the driver who did, which the second driver returns. Occasionally, though, someone is clearly being a pig–entering a one-lane stretch when another car’s already there, say, or refusing to back down when the other car would have to back into traffic or would have to back a long distance or back around a miserable bend–and that’s where you get standoffs. I did once turn my car off while the other driver fumed. I know someone who claims to have poured himself a cup of tea and opened the paper.

For more extensive tales about the right of way on narrow roads, allow me to refer you that widely unknown expert, myself.

are all country roads in england one way

Yes. And they all lead north, ending eventually at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point in Scotland. When enough people–and of course their cars–collect there, a ferry takes them south, distributing them at various points along the way to Land’s End, on the southern tip of Cornwall. By which time the ice cream’s melted. It’s inconvenient as hell and makes grocery shopping a nightmare, but unless you’re going to walk, what can you do?

I just love being an expert.

is devon road very narrow?

Devon has–maybe you should be sitting down when you read this–more than one road. Some of them are narrow. Some of them are not, although your idea of what’s narrow depends on what you’re used to. If you’re American, they’re all narrow. If you’re from Cornwall, they range from normal to wide.

And they all go north.

what are chocolate chip cookies called in England

They’re called chocolate chip cookies.

Yes, it is confusing.

the secret of lawyers wear white wigs

It’s hard enough to keep a wig secret when you’re sporting one that tries to look like your own hair, but it’s impossible when it’s as unlikely looking as the rugs British lawyers slam on their heads. If any of you happen to run a spy network, please, save your time and money That is not their real hair. Everyone knows it and you can’t blackmail them about it. Go ferret out some more useful secret.

The world–or at least the online world–is full of people who are obsessed by British lawyers’ wigs. They could, I’m sure, be doing worse things with their time, but it does strike me as strange. A quick sampling of recent wig questions brings us history of ill fitting wigs, what are english trial wig, and british lawyers build case against wigs. 

From the world of wigs, let’s drop briefly into the inscrutable:

circle the sound that you here .wants to meaning

I have no idea what that means or how it led here. I only reproduce it here because I didn’t want to be left alone with it.

manners in uk yes sir

Yes, sir, the British do have manners. Of course, everyone has manners, it’s just that they differ from place to place and culture to culture, and my manners may look to you like no manners at all.

People from cultures that are (or once were) dominant have a habit of thinking their manners are manners and everyone else’s are an absence of manners. And often enough, other people believe them. So any number of people think the British know how to do manners and could teach us barbarians a thing or six.

What the question probably means by “the British” is the British upper class, although I can’t swear to that. What I can swear to is that Britain isn’t one uniform culture. The manners that work in one class look either ignorant or silly if you transplant them. Not that people are judgmental about these things…

If the question is whether people in Britain say, “Yes, sir,” then (in my experience) no. Except on cop shows, and even there the “sir” tends to drag in a beat or two after the “yes” to prove its reluctance.

My answer may be colored by the fact that not many people call me “sir,” except over the phone from time to time, since my voice is low. I’ve been called “madam” once in a while when I’m buying something, although to my ear it often takes on a hostile tone. I’ve worked with the public. I understand how it can make people hostile, although my temper never took that particular channel. But “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am”? I can’t remember hearing either.

I’m grateful for that.

tell me about village life

People are born. They die. In between, they live. And that in-between period can be interesting. Not to mention messy.

I don’t know about all villages, but where I live most of the young people move away. Some want to live in a city, with all its opportunities. Others would love to stay but can’t. There aren’t many jobs around here and what jobs there are don’t pay well. If that isn’t enough of a problem, housing’s insanely expensive. Some do manage, but the village is aging.

How is village life different than city life? There are fewer people (to state the obvious), so we tend to know each other, or at least know of each other. In cities, you hear short stories about other people’s lives. Here, you get the entire novel, sometimes in multi-generational form. There are no secrets, although there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

why do americans have mailboxes

To get their mail. Also to mail their mail. Same word. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone get mixed up about which one does what.

A few related questions also came in:

a row of letterboxes in the hamptons; a row of letterboxes in uk

If “the Hamptons” refers to the overpriced cluster of towns on Long Island, then you won’t find a row of letterboxes, although you might find a row of mailboxes. The two countries are still trying to negotiate a treaty that would allow them to call the things by the same name. This has been going on since the U.S. declared independence.

If you think Brexit’s difficult…

do amerians not have post boxes

No, Amerians do not have post boxes. Or maybe that’s yes, Amerians do not have post boxes. Either way, see above. They have to make do with mailboxes. It’s shocking, I  know. Amerians do, however have a C in the middle of the word that describes their nationality.

But this gets us into another difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: In British, “Do Americans not have” is a perfectly normal way to phrase that question. In American, it wouldn’t be. We’d be more likely to say, “Don’t Americans have.”

how do american mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and it sits there, out of human sight. It communes with all the other letters people have dropped in. This is good, because otherwise it might worry about the wicked witch who lives in a gingerbread house in the forest. The someone comes and picks it up, along with all its new friends, and takes them to a sorting center, where they get (yes, this will surprise you) sorted. Then–but we’ve gone past the limits of the question, which was about the box itself.

Unless of course the question’s about the mailboxes people put outside their house (or that landlords put in apartment buildings) for incoming mail. The letter carrier drops the letter in and it sits there till someone takes it out.

It truly is an amazing system.

swearing in public uk magna carta

The Magna Carta was an agreement that King John and his barons signed in 1215. Neither side honored its commitments and in case that wasn’t enough it ended up being nullified by the Pope. Great moments in diplomacy. At least they didn’t have to agree about what to call that thing that holds letters. The mail (or post) hadn’t been invented yet.

As far as I can tell, the Magna Carta wasn’t sworn, just signed. It re-entered British political life after King J’s death and is now part of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

What’s an unwritten constitution? Good question, and I keep asking it myself. You gather up every element of precedent, every major political agreement, every major court decision, and the sweepings from every last one of London’s hair salons, and you interpret them for the present day.

Good luck.

Is there much public swearing in Britain? That depends very much on what you count as swear words. And who you hang out with. By anyone’s reckoning, I do enough swearing that I don’t always much notice how much other people are contributing. Good manners might tell me to leave more room for them instead of monopolizing it. I’ll give it some thought.

I have never yet heard anyone swear about the Magna Carta. It’s way in the background of everyday life.

In a brief, sensible aside, let me add that any public oath a person has to take in Britain allows them to either swear, which is a religious form of saying you’ll tell the truth, or affirm, which is a non-religious form. I appreciate the space made for a non-religious person not to have to be a hypocrite in order to say they’re telling the truth.

swear words uk vs us

Oh, surely you don’t want two entire lists, do you? Sex organs tend to go by different slang names in the two countries, which is why the American movie title Free Willy cracked up the British. Bloody isn’t a swear word in the U.S., it’s a description

This is very much off the top of my head and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but the important thing is that you can insult someone from one country using the other country’s swear words and pretty much count on being understood. And if the detail gets lost, the tone of voice will carry it.

*

In an effort to add this post in my stack of upcoming posts, I hit Publish weeks ago, before I’d changed the date and ended up sending it out too early, at which point I did my best to disappear it. Apologies to anyone who wasted internet time chasing it after it disappeared. I’d apologize for looking like a lunatic but I’m not sure that’s apology material. And I’d reassure you that I’m not, but since I haven’t sworn or affirmed it, I might not be telling the truth.

Using search engine questions to accomplish nothing

It’s time to read the tea leaves that search engines leave in the bottom of the cup after they drop in at Notes from the U.K.

You didn’t know search engines drink tea? This is Britain. Of course they drink tea.

Why do we want to read the tea leaves? So we can predict the future of humanity, of course.

Too depressing? Don’t worry about a thing, we’ll just change the question and ask what people want to know about Britain. Or at a minimum, what strange questions lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Why is it time to do that? A) Because I’m bored, B) because I have a shitload of small tasks I don’t want to tackle, and 3) just because.

Why am I asking so many questions and then answering them? Because it’s a quick, lazy way to organize a piece of writing. I don’t recommend it, I just use it now and then.

As always, the search questions appear in their original form, without question marks or (except in rare cases) capital letters. I’ve added the italics, but only so I can pretend to have done something useful with myself.

Variations on the usual questions

do brits realize hoew stupid the wigs look in court

Probably not. Silly people, the whole nationful of them.

Does the person who asked this realize that misspelling a simple word has a bounceback effect when he, she, or it is calling other people stupid?

Also probably not. Some people shouldn’t be turned loose with a keyboard.

british manners

Yes, they have them. So do other nations. Don’t let it keep you up at night.

Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They were gathering in larger and larger flocks in late February and early March, probably getting ready to migrate. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here and consider it the sunny south. The starlings that spend the summer here consider it the frozen north and head south for the winter. If they were bureaucrats (see below) we’d say this is inefficient. Being as how they’re birds and all, we say it’s impressive.

great britain why is it called

This is so simple that it’s profound. The place has to be called something. Back when we let countries wander around nameless, they couldn’t tell who was being called home to eat supper or go to bed. It was confusing. Plus when they went to war, it was hard to crank their people up about who they were supposed to hate. “The people over there.” “Where?” “There. You know, the tall, ugly ones we were friends with last time.”

So, yeah, the place needed a name and Britain was as good as anything else. So was Great Britain. So was the United Kingdom. So, if you don’t understand the situation, was England, although calling it that does tell everyone else that you’re clueless.

So there you go. The country was so impressed with the need for a name that it assigned itself damn near half a dozen.

A semi-serious answer’s available here. Just so you know I could answer the question if a bear was chasing me.

Comprehensible but less predictable questions

potatoes in the mould and its taters outside

These are Cockney rhyming slang—the meaning of the phrase rhymes with its last word, which usually drops away (as it has in the second question) so an outsider doesn’t stand a chance in hell of guessing the meaning. Which is the point.

Both phrases mean it’s cold, as does the version I heard one morning, “It’s parky.” (“In the mould” was implied but not mentioned, and no taters were involved.) Being American, I heard “mold,” without the U, but in deference to the guy who said it was parky, I’ve added the U. I’m sure that’s how he would’ve said it if he’d added the moldy bit. He’s not responsible for what I would’ve heard if etc.

I had no idea what he was talking about and he had to translate for me.

For an effort to make sense of parky, go here. I’d send you to my own post about the incident, but it wouldn’t add anything to what I just told you.

why in the uk do they wear hair wigs in court

Those would be hair wigs as opposed to spaghetti wigs? Or seaweed wigs? They use hair because it’s less messy. And you can wear them longer before they start to smell.

As it turns out, the wigs they wear in court are made of horsehair. (That’s not one of my posts–it’s from a wig maker.) That is a kind of hair, although probably not what the questioner had in mind.

For an actual answer—or as close to an answer as you’re likely to get here—I’ll refer you to that expert on nothing much, myself. The post brings in a steady trickle of readers from search engines, but then so do my posts on beer. This is what people really want to know about Britain: Why do they wear those silly wigs in court (I’m quoting, not giving my opinion, which would take much more space) and how’s the beer? It’s enough to make a person despair of humanity.

cock womble origin and british slang cockwomble definition not to mention curse word that ends in womblebritish insults phrases and define sock womble             

In spite of what I said in the last paragraph, these prove that intellectual curiosity isn’t quite dead. Let’s start with by tackling the depressing question: How do we define sock womble? Well, I don’t know about your sock drawer, but when mine’s closed, my socks wiggle out of the matches I’ve made for them and form love matches and when I open the drawer in the morning, there they all are, wombled up next to what they swear are their true and lasting loves.

I used to match them back up the way I wanted them, but it saves time to leave them where they put themselves. And from that I’ve learned that among socks love never lasts. Next time I open the drawer, the pairs have all changed.

It’s womblin’ tragic.

On a less depressing note, the rest of the questions show us that a few people want to learn about either another culture or their own, even if all they want to learn is how to curse more efficiently.

Is cockwomble an efficient curse? Well, it’s obscure. That’s in its favor if you want a laugh. As the one search question put it (without the question  mark), “a curse word that ends in womble”? That rates pretty high on the improbability scale.

On the other hand, if you’re nose to nose with a very angry other person and hoping to convince them that you’re some kind of threat, cockwomble isn’t the first word that should jump into your head. I mention this because I like Notes to be of some use in the world and this seems like the sort of thing you should all know. And you won’t learn it anywhere else.

So like most things, whether it’s an efficient curse depends on time, place, and circumstance.

But speaking of efficiency:

why is uk beaurocracy so efficient

This raises two questions: 1, is it? 2, compared to what? and, C, why is bureaucracy spelled wrong?

Let’s start and end with question 1, since I can’t answer the others.

Or no, wait, I can answer C. It’s spelled wrong because it’s in English, a language that positively begs for its words to be spelled wrong. See Murphy’s Law.

But back to question 1: How efficient is British bureaucracy? Reasonably, I think. It’s not inherently corrupt, which nudges it up the efficiency scale. If we look hard enough we’ll find examples of corruption, but it’s not endemic.

But things that go wrong are always more memorable than things that work—and they’re more fun. At least they are in this context; they’re not in real life. So let’s talk about things that don’t work.

Corruption? A Westminster city councillor whose committee had the power to approve or turn down planning applications was in the headlines lately for accepting 900 gifts and entertainment from developers. He recently became an ex-city councillor, but the story demonstrates that corruption exists. And that getting caught is awkward.

Unless of course it’s all perfectly innocent and he’s receiving gifts because he’s a nice guy.

Efficiency? When Wild Thing—that’s my partner—and I first moved here, the papers regularly ran articles about flash drives and disks holding state secrets being left on the train. Some tired bureaucrat was headed home, planning to put in a few extra hours, first on the train and then after supper. It made us wonder why anyone bothered to assemble a spy network in the U.K. All they needed was a minimally trained crew riding the trains.

We haven’t seen an article like that for a long time. Either the system’s become more efficient or that they’ve squelched the stories.

I miss them.

But bureaucratic systems have a tendency to get trapped by their own rules and become ridiculous. Not to mention ponderous. It’s one of the rules. So when Wild Thing volunteered (briefly—long story, and not one I’m going to tell) to work with a women’s center she had to fill out a form allowing a background check. It’s a legal requirement. I’m not sure how effective the system is, but it seems reasonable enough to at least try and make sure your new volunteer never kidnapped or murdered anyone.

The form required her to choose a title: Miss, Mrs., Ms., Mr. She chose Ms., because we’re Ms. kind of people, both of us.

Soon after, the organization got a call from the bureaucrat whose job it was to process the form. She—the bureaucrat, henceforth known as the twit—had a few questions. Wild Thing happened to be there, so they put her on the phone.

Ms. meant a person was married, the twit announced, so why hadn’t she filled in the information on her husband?

Because she didn’t have one. She had me, the lucky soul, and I’m many things but, being of the female persuasion, I’m just not husband material.

Besides, we weren’t married.

No, Wild Thing said, Ms. didn’t mean anything of the kind. The whole purpose of introducing it, back in the seventies–and yes, she was around back then–was that it didn’t identify a woman by her marital status any more than Mr. identifies a man by his.

But it means you’re married, the twit sententioused (that’s the verb form of said sententiously).

No, Wild Thing florided (that’s the verb form of overstated floridly). It doesn’t.

Et cetera, with Wild Thing getting increasingly florid in her explanations of why the twit was (a) wrong (b)—oh, never mind, you get the picture. W.T.’s from Texas. She understands the beauty of vivid overstatement. It’s one of the things I admire about her.

Unfortunately the twit had the power to approve W.T.’s background, so she got the final say. After exercising her inalienable right to be difficult, W.T. caved and was entered into bureaucratic eternity as Miss Wild Thing. I can’t help wondering where the conversation would’ve gone if she’d said, “Fine, then, I’ll use Mr.”

But back to our point, because we did once have one: What did that conversation cost the county in administrative time? Fifteen minutes, maybe.  Half an hour if you count the time it took the twit to crank herself up for the call and then to change the form.

I said earlier that bureaucracies had a tendency to become ponderous and get trapped by their own rules, and I’ll stand by that, but I don’t want to sound like one of those people who preach that business is more efficient. The recent history of British outsourcing has been a mashup of tragic and laughable. The outsourced security for the London Olympics was handled so badly that the government ended up calling in  the army.

I could go on endlessly about government efforts to rationalize what’s called the benefits system here–what in the U.S. we called welfare. It’s been a disaster, leaving people without money for food or rent. Unfortunately, I can’t find a shred of humor in it.

does the word immigrants need an apostrophe

Not if you don’t add one. Unfortunately, it means something different if you do. Or don’t. That’s why the apostrophe was invented–to mean something.

It’s all about asking the right question, isn’t it?

rude cornish drivers

Oh, dear, we’ve offended someone. On behalf of all of us, I’m so sorry. Genuinely, terribly, grovelingly sorry.

With that out of the way, let me say that if Cornish drivers are rude, polite drivers must be so nice they’re unable to enter an intersection for fear of cutting off someone who might show up tomorrow at rush hour. Admittedly, I’m originally from New York, so my standards are a little rough around the edges, but I’m in awe of how polite drivers are here. But like efficiency, it all depends on what you’re comparing it to.

how to appriopriately drive down through narrow roads

First, don’t worry about the spelling. Or the grammar. Keep your mind on the road. Second, don’t hit anything. Third, if you meet someone coming the other way, don’t get into a standoff, because if you need to ask how to drive on these roads, the other driver will be better at it and standoffs are a time when even polite drivers can turn nasty. Back up if you’re closer to a wide spot and if you’re a competent driver. If you’re frozen in fear (see “competent driver”), look helpless (and for the sake of clarity, both male and female drivers can accomplish this) and hope the other person takes charge of the situation by being the one to back up.

And finally, the kind of question I look forward to

if the mail gets put into the letterbox and not the mailbox and the dog gets it is the postman responsible

Now there’s a question for you. Never mind how it ended up here, let’s stop and admire the embedded insanity—or glory; take your pick—of the English language. It used three separate words that all describe a piece of paper that’s sent from one place to another: The letterbox is the thing in the door (or someplace else) that letters come in through; the mailbox is the thing on the corner (or someplace else) where you throw letters to send them away; and the postman is the man (or woman, English being English and language reflecting a culture’s insanities) who either picks up or delivers those letters—or possibly does both.

In British English, the stuff that comes through the letterbox is, collectively, the post. In American English, it’s the mail. And in American English the woman who delivers it would be the mailman. Or the letter carrier, since mailwoman or mailperson sounds too silly. I’m not sure how British English has dealt with that. Postperson doesn’t have a great ring to it either, but I seem to be the only person around who says “letter carrier.”

If we’ve spent enough time on that, let’s move on to the content. I’m not sure the British post office will pick up a letter if you leave it in your own letterbox—I think not—but the American one will. Either way, though, it’s your letterbox and your dog, not to mention your decision to put the letter where the dog can get it. And you want to blame the letter carrier? This is a serious question? Your hono(u)r—you with the horsehair wig on your head—I suggest this person be sentenced to drive down narrow roads full of rude Cornish drivers and apostrophes until she, he, or it learns to use search engines better.

what does the flag on a mailbox mean

It means the queen is in residence.

+tickety tonk               

I can’t tell you what tickety tonk means or how the question found me. I did write a post about the British phrase tickety boo, and maybe that’s as close as the internet comes to tickety tonk.

Whatever tickety tonk means, it came through with the plus sign intact, meaning we’ve added one. So applying everything I remember from my algebra classes, what we have to do is figure out what would happen if we were minus a tickety tonk.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.

Ready?

Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part eightish

What does the world want to know about Britain lately? Let’s take a stroll through the questions that lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Is that a fair way to answer the question?

Probably not.

Do I care?

Oh, absolutely, but not enough to keep me from writing the post.

How’d-that-land-here? questions

“I won’t answer the question polly put the kettle on answer.”

Now that, friends, is a very strange thing to type into a search engine. It’s even stranger that it led someone here, although part of it has a vaguely familiar sound, as if some bot picked up a bit of something I wrote (or that someone else wrote in a comment), tossed it in a jar with a few spare words from someone else’s blog, shook the jar until they blended, then poured them onto the keyboard and hit Send.

It’s even stranger for using a capital letter. Think of capital letters as clothes. Most search questions run through the internet bare-ass nekked.

Anyway, if the writer won’t answer the question (remind me, someone: what was the question?), I won’t either, but I will say that I understand how a phone can be put on answer, although I don’t think that’s what anyone calls the process. Still, whatever you call it, you punch a bunch of buttons and record yourself trying to say you’re out while not admitting that you’re out because you don’t want someone to hear your message and think, Aha! They just said they’re out. I’ll go break in and steal ’em blind.

Once you’ve done all that, the phone answers itself, bypassing you entirely and raising the question of whether you add any value at all to the transaction.

The kettle, though? I keep hearing that machines are getting smarter, but so far all my kettle does is boil water. I talk to it sometimes. I even sing to it. It doesn’t answer.

A final note before we move along: “polly put the kettle on” is not a question.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: Thrift. I really need to get out and take some more photos.

“what figure of speech is a thousand miles.”

Um, gee. I’d have to say it depends how you use it.

A figure of speech is a word or a set of words that are used to mean something other than its literal meaning. So a thousand miles can mean a thousand miles. One, two, three, and so on until you get to a thousand. That’s literal. No problem unless you get into the whole question of how long a mile is, because an old-style Cornish mile measured 3.161 etc. to nine decimal points of our current miles.

But let’s stick with the standard mile. I can sow enough confusion with needing help, thanks. Stick to the literal meaning and it’s not a figure of speech.

If you were to write, “My love is like a thousand miles,” you’d have written a lousy line but it would be a figure of speech—a simile, pronounced SIM-ill-ee, which I mention because written English contains almost no clue about how to pronounce a word and also because I have nothing better to do with myself. So sure, you probably already knew all that, but I’m having fun here.

A simile is two things compared openly, using like or as. Or possibly some other words I’ve forgotten, although I don’t think so. I’m not paid to know this stuff anymore, so I threw it all out of my head to make space for more useful things. Like the Cornish mile.

I wasn’t using it anyway and until today I didn’t miss it.

If you write, “My love is a thousand miles,” your writing would still by lousy but you’d have moved on from a simile to a metaphor, where like or as drops away and the comparison goes underground.

If you delete “my love is” and instead dropped “a thousand miles” into a sentence so that it stood for your love, it still wouldn’t make any sense but it would be a symbol. Of something.

We’ll skip the fancier stuff, like synecdoche. But aren’t you glad someone asked?

For the record, my love is not a thousand miles. She’s on the phone in the living room at this very minute, talking in a very un-thousand-mile-like way.

“guy stickney the night light linked in”

We’re going to have to disassemble that and see if any piece of it makes sense. Stickney’s a real last name, and I happen know a guy who carries it. His first name is not Guy. I don’t know him well enough to know if he uses—or even owns—a nightlight. Or if he uses LinkedIn.

Somehow I don’t think any of that is what whoever wrote that was looking for.

How’d the question get to me? I’ve used the words the, and in a lot, but I’m pretty sure everyone else on the internet has too. I’m sure I’ve used guy, night, and light, and probably even linked. As far as I can remember, I haven’t connected them in any way that would draw a search question.

Lord Google moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

“deer plot seeds”

They do? And here I was, thinking they’re all little innocent creatures who gambol around the forest and eat grass. Or leaves. Or something vegetabilian.

No, that’s gambol, not gamble. Cab drivers gamble. Deer? No, even on the evidence of this question, they may plot, but they don’t gamble. They weigh their risks carefully and don’t make their move till their sure.

What are they plotting? I’m not sure. I don’t understand what it means to plot seeds. To seed a plot, yes. To plot in general? Sure, no problem. But plotting seeds is like plotting shoes: There just doesn’t seem to be much point to it.

Still, keep your eye on those innocent-looking creatures. They’re up to something, and we’ve been warned.

“how could smart glasses do more thing”

I don’t know. This is not a technology blog. You should talk to my kettle.

“w87g”

Yes. Or possibly no. It depends on time, place, and circumstance. Also on meaning.

“t6y6”

This is clearer, The answer is no, absolutely not.

If anyone has a theory (no matter how crackpot) about how these last two questions got to me, I’d love to hear it. The first I wrote off as a glitch. With the second, I’m starting to see a pattern. One more and it’ll be a conspiracy.

“pees women pants”

With this one, you have officially seen me speechless. Or at least you’ve read me smart-answerless. Is this a search for the kind of women’s underwear meant for people with incontinence problems? Is someone looking for highly specialized pornography?

Either way, I seriously doubt I was any help.

Let’s try a new category.

What’s Britain really like?

“british talk about weather outside.”

Weather in Britain happens outside. It’s one of the things that lets you know you’re in Britain, not Canada or Cambodia, where (as I’m sure you know) they bring their weather indoors.

For some years now, British politicians have turned themselves inside out trying to define British values—it’s one of those placate-the-anti-immigrant-lobby things—and they’ve failed spectacularly. It’s kind of endearing, the hash they’ve made of it. If they want to know what British values are, they should ask their nearest immigrant. We could tell them: British weather takes place outside, and British that people talk about that.

To get the right to stay in this country, since I am my nearest immigrant, I had to take an entire damn computerized test to prove I understood British culture. Why didn’t they just ask me about outdoor weather? Talk about wasting taxpayer money.

Next question, please.

“do british homes have mailboxes”

Yes.

What are they called? (I’m adding this. No one asked.)

(That’s not true. I asked some time ago, and finding the answer wasn’t easy. Probably because I looked in the wrong places.)

Letter boxes.

Are they boxes?

Not necessarily. Ours is a slot in the door.

Why are they called boxes?

Because. It’s English. Abandon logic all ye who hope to master this language.

“do british people eat notmal cookies”

Um, no. Some eat oatmeal cookies. Some eat normal cookies. None, as far as I’ve been able to find out, eat notmal cookies, although British English is (a) regional and (b) inventive as hell, so I’ll never be completely sure.

“chocolate chip cookies in Britain”

British people do eat chocolate chip cookies, although that should probably be some British people eat these. So many internet searches are fixated on what all British people do. Get born. Breathe. Die. Beyond that, you’ll find a lot of variation.

Chocolate chip cookies in Britain often seem—I don’t like to say this—a bit disoriented. They’re not used to the range of accents. The oven temperatures are measured in centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. They’re trying to locate their friends the Notmal family, who aren’t in the phone book. (You remember phone books, right? Am I the only one around here who’s getting old?)

Basically, chocolate chip cookies are immigrants. Adapting is never a smooth process. Be patient with them. Eventually they’ll understand that the British weather is outside and you’ll be able to have a very nice conversation with them about that.

“why doing british people know what brownies are”

Because brownies are sold here. If you buy one in a café, you may have to excavate it from under layers of ice cream, whipped cream, fudge sauce, chocolate sprinkles, and tiny American flags playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but if you keep your nerve you’ll find a brownie down there somewhere.

“what people guy night”

Why, those people over there.

This probably has to do with Guy Fawkes night, which I did write about, and which may be responsible for me receiving all guy-related internet searches from now until forever. I’m not sure about the “what people” part of the question, though. The British ones? Probably. You can identify them by their confusion over what their values are.

“what are american biscuits called in england”

If this is about baking powder biscuits, they’re not called anything unless you’re at my house. They only exist if I make a batch, and I call them baking powder biscuits so people don’t take one thinking they’re funny-looking cookies and then feel disappointed.

On the other hand, if this is about the kind of biscuits you eat with cheese, they’re called biscuits. That’s to distinguish them from the things Americans call cookies, which are called biscuits.

Clear? Want to read about the Cornish mile?

“do the english get confused between the names ‘england’ and ‘britain’”

No more than the Americans get confused between the names Minnesota and Upper Midwest, or California and West Coast, or Massachusetts and New England. They leave it to Americans to get confused about. It’s a handy division of labor and it’s worked well for the country, although I’m not sure it’s done the U.S. any favors.

I suspect the rest of the world has less trouble with this, but maybe that’s just my ignorance speaking.

“why are people called great Britain”

They’re not.

“why is great and why is Britain”

Yes. Both.

“are drinks stronger in britain”

No, but water’s wetter. And the air is airier.

“letter from an English friend talking about how they bake lemon bread”

Sorry, but I didn’t get the letter. And my feelings were hurt by that.

“siri welsh placenames”

I don’t know Welsh, I’m sorry to say, so I wouldn’t trust my pronunciation and you shouldn’t either. I also wouldn’t trust Siri’s, or any other automated voice’s.

Not long ago, I caught a ride down to Hayle (pronounced Hale by everyone I’ve heard mention it) with a friend whose sat-nav called it HAY-yell. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but you can’t know with place names in England (or Cornwall) unless you ask someone local. And even then, you have to hope they’re not messing with you, because it’s got to be tempting.

I suspect Welsh place names are less unpredictable than English ones, but I’m saying that not because I know anything about Welsh place names but because I’m convinced that nothing matches the English ones for sheer insanity.

“how many brussels sprouts do we eat in the u.k. at christmas”

240,641, 004. But that doesn’t take account of the ones that get sliced into quarters and shoved under the leftover mashed potatoes, And the brussels sprouts monitors are still arguing whether to count the ones that get fed to the dog.

Britain and the U.S.

“british admired americans directness”

Oh, they did, did they? All of them? When was that? In my experience some do and some would just as soon send us home to be direct—or rude, if you prefer—with our fellow Amurricans.

“british hate americans” // “do brits like americans” // “british attitude toward americans” // “do british people like chocolate chip cookies”

Let’s get this out of the way first: I do understand the difference between Americans and chocolate chip cookies. I herded those complaining questions into a single group because I want to explain this once and once only: The Great British Attitude Convention—you know: the one that votes on how the entire population feels about things—bogged down in procedural disagreements this year and hasn’t been able to decide a damn thing. They’re still arguing about the shape of the table.

So Americans? Chocolate chip cookies? Right now, no one knows how the British feel. People are hugging American tourists and then hauling off and slapping them. They’re buying chocolate chip cookies, then throwing them on the floor by the cash register and stamping on them. It’s a tricky business, being on all sides of everything.

“british people think of tornado alley”

I’m not so sure they do. A few, probably, but I don’t think tornado alley’s widely known.

The inevitable wig questions

“does the government still wear those stupid wigs in england”

The government is not a living being. From that it follows from it is that the government doesn’t have a physical head to put a wig on. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Some things we’ve just got to face up to. And the phrase “the head of state”? It’s a figure of speech. The state, like the government, doesn’t have a literal head.

“do english judges feel silly”

Constantly.

Oh, you were asking about wigs. Probably not. They’re used to them.

Gotcha questions

“how to act like aristocracy”

Okay, I admit it: When I gave that title (or something like it; I don’t really remember) to a post, I was thinking, I bet someone googles this. And they do. Not in huge numbers, but in ones and threes. It’s embarrassing. For them, not me. Do you suppose they’re really trying to act like aristocracy, and if so, why?

“how to behave like an aristocratic lady”

Keep your eye on me, kid, then do the opposite.