News about the English language

You’ve probably read that English is now the default world language. Well, here’s the proof you weren’t looking for: Birds are speaking it. To each other. Or at least in Australia they are.

Escaped pet parrots and cockatoos have taught it to the wild flocks they join, and the flocks are sitting in the trees chatting away. Not necessarily making anything we’d recognize as sensible conversation, but then humans don’t always make much sense with it either.

A lot of what they say involves swear words.

Well, what did you expect they’d learn from us? Trigonometry?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This petunia does not speak English. Or any other language. Shocking, isn’t it?

But wild birds speaking English is nothing compared to prairie dogs—North American relatives of meerkats—can do in their own language. They describe not only the kind of danger they see but the size, shape, color, speed, and type of predator.

They do that in Prairie Dog, a language that’s only now getting the recognition it deserves.

According to a New York Times article, “The animals could even combine the structural elements of their calls in novel ways to describe something they had never seen before…. Prairie-dog communication is so complex…—so expressive and rich in information—that it constitutes nothing less than language.”

That dumps us right into the thicket of what a language is and whether, as the article asks, language created the mind or the mind created language. I won’t try to find my way through that—there’s a shortcut leading out of the thicket and I’m going to crawl through it. I won’t learn as much as I would if I took the long way, but I won’t get as many thorns in my hide.

Besides, I don’t know enough to find my way through if I go the more interesting way, never mind enough to guide anyone else. If someone does know enough and writes on this, send me a link and I’ll post it. In the meantime, take a look at the article if you’re interested. It’s a fascinating question.

*

You may have already suspected this, but it’s now official: Swearing makes you stronger. A study at Keele Univery, in Staffordshire, has established it. And since Staffordshire is in Britain, it’s legitimate blog fodder, unlike that business about Australian birds and North American prairie dogs.

The test involved repeating either your swearword of choice or a word you might use to describe a table. You know: scratched, wobbly, needing a good wipe with a dishrag that is, ideally, cleaner than the table.

Okay, you now know more about my gift for housekeeping than you were meant to. And that last suggestion isn’t one word, so it probably wouldn’t work.

Whichever group you were in, you had to say the word in an even tone while pedaling an exercise bike for half a minute.

The swearword group generated more power than the table group.

It’s possible that the people repeating “wobbly” were laughing too hard to press those pedals, but if they weren’t and it was a fair comparison, it means that I am very, very strong. Please be impressed. At my size, I don’t get to impress people often.

*

As long as I’m on the subject of language, let’s give a minute to the way a recent newspaper article about eating red meat was written. It said studies have shown “that substituting white meat for red meat reduced the risk of dying from most causes.”

Since I not only don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white meat either, I won’t die from any cause at all. And if swearing turns out to not just make you stronger but also prolong life, I’ll have many extra years to pass on to my friends and readers.

Do people really say “spiffing”?

A. tells me she wants to be a character in my blog. I didn’t think I had characters in my blog, just people I hide behind initials, but I like to make people happy when I can. So here’s a scene, complete with characters.

I was at the pub recently on singers night, and during the break A. and C. and I were standing around talking. As nearly as I can reconstruct the conversation, C. asked A. (apropos of I have no idea what; possibly nothing), “Are you spiffing?”

A. looked, I think, surprised but said yes, she was spiffing.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter. I love fog, which is lucky since we get a lot of it.

An interruption here: Since I’m turning people into characters, I can abandon my limited point of view and say that A. didn’t just look surprised, she was surprised. She was also amused and ready to go along with a joke.

C. turned to me and asked if I was also spiffing.

And here we get another interruption (what would this blog be without interruptions?), because we’ve got to consider the word spiffing. It made me think I’d fallen into a 1920s English novel. I can’t remember hearing anyone say the word before, ever, so when I started to write this scene I pulled out the small collection of dictionaries that made it across the Atlantic with me or that I’ve bought since I moved here. (Before I retired, I worked as an editor, so it made sense to have more than one dictionary. I miss the ones I left behind.)

My American dictionary doesn’t include any variation on spiffing, and I was ready to declare the word a Britishism, but then I tried my two British dictionaries and they didn’t have it either. None of them are particularly good dictionaries, mind you, but still, that says something about the word, doesn’t it? The only places I found it were: 1, In NTC’s Dictionary of British Slang, which gave me spiffed out (dressed up; polished up nicely), spiffing (excellent), and spiffy (clean and tidy; excellent), but it didn’t say anything about their origin. And 2, in British English A to Zed (what could be more British than a zed?), which gave me spif(f)licate (to knock the hell out of; to destroy). I took that for a word origin, although I still don’t see how you get from there to excellent etc.

Then I went online. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff ‘well-dressed man.’ Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) ‘percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock’ (1859), or to spiflicate ‘confound, overcome completely,’ a cant word from 1749 that was ‘common in the 19th century’ [OED], preserved in American English and yielded slang spiflicated ‘drunk,’ first recorded in that sense 1902.”

Preserved in American English? Excuse me, but the only time we’d use the word in the U.S. (and again, remember, I’m omniscient for the duration of this post) is when we want to sound faintly ridiculous. And even then, we’d only use it in one sentence, which we could only say in one of three contexts. It goes as follows: “We’ve got to spiff this place up before

  1. your parents
  2. the landlord, or
  3. the police

get here.”

Or, okay, I’ll contradict myself: We might say something was pretty spiffy. But again, only if we wanted that slight tang of absurdity.

Spiffing, though? Never.

As a point of information, when an online search engine offered to translate spiffy into any of the world’s many languages, I couldn’t resist taking it up on the offer. I chose Spanish first and then French, because I actually speak those.

Almost. To be completely honest, I only speak French if you have some imagination and a flexible definition of the word speak, and even if my Spanish is workable it’s a long way from perfect, but for the purposes of one word that should be close enough. I’d stand a fighting chance of comparing the translation to reality. Or at least to a dictionary.

The search engine translated spiffy as spiffy. In both languages.

Thank you, oh great googlemaster. That was tremendously helpful, but it slowed our scene down, so let’s go back to our conversation. You remember our conversation? A. and C. and me in the pub on singers night?

C. turned to me and asked if I was spiffing. My mind went into that overdrive thing minds sometimes do when they’re asked a question they can’t process. The word spiffing, it said to itself, and to me since I was eavesdropping helplessly, cannot exist outside of 1920s fiction set among aristocratic twits who lounge around holding tennis rackets and drinking martinis. It can therefore only be used by or about people who are English, aristocratic twits, and born around 1900. You are none of these things, therefore you cannot be spiffing.

My mind didn’t stop to notice that C. isn’t any of those things and that A. is only one of them, English, but minds are like that under pressure. Or mine is. It focuses very narrowly and is very, very strange.

Without consulting me (and since we’ve wandered again, I’ll remind you that the question was “Are you spiffing?”), my mouth said, “No, I’m American.”

Which was as true as it was irrelevant.

That pretty well took care of the break. We’d eaten our sandwiches and had our conversation and those of us who’d taken cheese sandwiches had spread the grated cheese that hadn’t made it to our mouths in a nice even pattern on the carpet. That happens every week. We spif(f)licate [knock hell out of] the sandwiches and the next week (or presumably, day) the carpet’s clean again. I have no idea how they get it up. Or why they think carpet’s a good idea.

They could, in theory, slice the cheese instead of grating it, but it would be un-British.

How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.

It’s all tickety boo

You want the American stereotype of British English? The phrase tickety boo comes as close as anything I can think of. It sounds like something that escaped from a 1920s comedy involving a butler who wears a bowler hat to hide his brains and a dim-witted aristocrat who needs a top hat to accommodate his sense of entitlement. Oh, and there’d be a lot of alcohol—martinis, probably—and women (strictly secondary characters) in what were then scandalously short skirts and are now scandalously modest.

Strangely, though, tickety boo is something people still say. Right now, in—what year is this anyway? Twenty something or other. And not clueless aristocrats either. Ordinary hatless, butlerless people who I know.

Or whom I know if you insist.

moose 005

Oh, and did I mention that we got a puppy? He’s the one of the right: nine weeks old and named (what else?) Moose.

So shut up, Ellen, and tell the good people what tickety boo means. It means is okay. or everything’s fine. It has an every little thing’s in place sound to it, although none of the definitions I found in my extensive five-minute Google search mention this. Still, my ear insists on it, and puts the emphasis on little.

It’s informal, as you might have guessed from the sound.

The Urban Dictionary says the origin may be Scottish, but along with the Oxford Dictionary it traces the origins, tentatively to Hindi, although the two dictionaries quote different versions of a Hindi phrase—or (let’s be skeptical) an allegedly Hindi phrase. If I had to bet on one version, I’d put my money on the Oxford one, but let’s not pretend I know anything about this. Oxford sounds impressive and its phrase sounds less like something an ear tuned exclusively to English might have mangled .

How a phrase originates in Scotland and India I don’t know, but to demonstrate the phrase’s Scottish roots, the Urban Dictionary refers to Danny Kaye singing “Everything is Tickety Boo” in a film I never heard of, Merry Andrew. Convincing stuff, right? Kaye was an American actor—the New York-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants whose original name was Kaminsky, which I’m reasonably sure isn’t Scottish or Hindi.

Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so maybe we can make some sort of backing for the theory there.

Do you begin to get the sense that everything isn’t quite tickety boo about all this? That maybe some of the sources you find through Google aren’t perfectly researched? Maybe even that guesswork is involved in tracing word origins?

The Collins Dictionary, playing it safe, says the origin is obscure. Several sources say the phrase is outdated, even archaic. Which would imply that my friends are archaic. Sorry, but we’re not having any of that.

The Oxford Dictionary adds, helpfully, that tickety boo rhymes with buckaroo, poo-poo, shih tzu, Waterloo, and many, many other words that wouldn’t spring to mind if you were going for logical connection instead of pure sound. If anyone would like to use those in a rhymed, metered poem and submit it to the Comments section, I will shoot myself. Although not necessarily with a gun.

*

In Tuesday’s post I left some of you with unanswered questions—which bless your tickety little hearts, you asked—about why I’m cutting back my posting schedule. I didn’t mean to be cryptic or to worry anyone. Here’s what’s happening:

Ever since Wild Thing was diagnosed with macular degeneration and had to quit driving, I’ve been thinking about posting less often. Not necessarily forever, but for now. The changes in our lives haven’t been easy to get used to, either emotionally or practically, and one result is that I haven’t been keeping up with the details of my life lately.

While I was arguing with myself over whether or not to cut back, I got a bad cold, which came close on the heels of a miserable flu, and on Monday night I realized I had nothing at all to say for Tuesday’s post. The only thought in my head was, Do we have enough cold pills? So that tipped me over the edge. If I’d a bit more room in my head for thoughts, I might have said all this in Tuesday’s post but I didn’t and so I couldn’t.

I’m pulling back from some other commitments as well and hoping all this will leave me time to moult—you know, drop old feathers, grow new ones, maybe some listen to music more often, do more baking, spend more time with Wild Thing, and do more work on the book I’m theoretically writing. Maybe even shovel out the house a bit more often.

But you’re not rid of me yet. I’ll be around on Fridays. And already I’m missing my old schedule.

Adaptation and pig headedness

Wild Thing and I need to renew our American passports. To do that, we each have to send in two passport photos measuring two inches by two inches. British passport photos measure something else by something else, as do driver’s license and everything else photos, so we can’t just plonk ourselves in that little booth in the supermarket entrance, looking our worst, plug some money into the slot, and walk away with photos. And for all I know, an inch in the U.K. isn’t the same as an inch in the U.S. Why should it be when a cup, a pint, and yea, even a breath of air all change size as they cross the Atlantic?

But don’t let me sulk about that. I have and it didn’t help. The U.S. embassy is very clear about what it wants. Send us the wrong size photo, it warns, and we’ll send them back.

And put us on a watch list so we’ll never be allowed to fly again. Because the wrong size passport photo? It’s an indicator of political unreliability and who knows where it could lead.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had  stop walking during the gusts.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had stop walking during the gusts.

So we went to a local photography studio. We walked in looking our worst and came away with two two-by-two photos each. In the process, we got to know the photographer’s two dogs (sorry—I’m not making up the numbers; there really are that many twos involved) and their histories and friendships and enemyships. (Did I mention that if you ask about a dog around here, you’ll find out about the dog?) A neighbor stopped by with a chew stick for each of them, as she does every working day. We discussed dogs a bit more, then moved on to being Cornish (“you have to have four generations in the ground here before you’re Cornish,” the neighbor said).

Wild Thing said we had dual citizenship. I can’t remember why that came up, but it made sense at the time. The neighbor said that if we were British we had to say—and I may well get this wrong but I’ll do my best—“dyual.” Or maybe I should spell that DYOO-wel, as opposed to the American DOO-wel.

The photographer agreed.

The hell we do, I thought and didn’t bother to say. It’s not something I need to argue since I have no intention of doing it.

But Wild Thing’s an accent adaptor. She repeated “dyual.” I don’t know how close she was but close enough that they accepted it for at least the effort.

I tell you this story because when I asked what people wanted to know about either Britain or the U.S, bethbyrnes wrote, “My family is from England and I grew up with a lot of rules. When I go back to the UK, I get the impression that the Brits (my family included) see Americans as naughty children and treat us accordingly. I so love England and thought of moving there eventually but I feel I might resent being seen in such a negative light. What do you think? Am I imagining this? I hope this isn’t too rude to ask!”

That isn’t even bordering on rude. But then, I’m an American, and not one with an ear for subtle rudeness.

I suspect the answer depends in part on how seriously you take dual/dyual comments. I heard the conversation as good-humored bullshit—the kind of thing you say to someone so that you have something to say to someone. In other words, teasing. Which has an ugly side, a side that not only hurts people’s feelings but also enforces conformity, but it also a we-all-agree-not-to-take-this-seriously side. What people really mean is often a matter of guesswork, and I tend to hear that second side more often than the first. I won’t argue that I’m right, only that I tend to hear it that way.

Wild Thing, I think, takes these comments more seriously than I do. When—as often happens—people talk about some TV show or comic that they find hysterically funny and we say it leaves us cold, someone’s bound to say, “Oh, well, you’re not British.” Wild Thing hears an element of pity in it. I hear a simple statement of fact. I don’t know who’s reading the signs more accurately.

I can’t remember ever thinking that we were being treated as naughty children, although we’d be an easy target for that. J. did once say that now that we were British we had to start eating dessert with a dessert spoon (which I’d have called a soup spoon) instead of a fork, but again I heard it as good-humored teasing and kept right on using my fork. I do set out dessert spoons for our friends, but you’ll find forks right beside them. Choose your weapon. This comes up often since we’re part of a small group devoted to eating dessert, discussing politics, and occasionally taking action. Not to mention trading the odd bit of gossip. The group meets at our house. So setting out spoons? I don’t expect my friends to change the way they eat any more than I expect to change the way I do. But I’m hard headed. I can take a fair bit of criticism, comment, and teasing, as long as it’s well meant, without feeling like I’m under attack.

And when a comment is meant seriously? When people genuinely do think I should eat differently, talk differently, or turn myself into their idea of what a person should be? I don’t spend much time with people like that and they don’t go out of their way to spend time with me, oddly enough. They’re welcome to their opinion and much good may it do them.

So yes, people like that are out there. But another group seems to think of Americans as free spirits and envy us our lack of inhibition. But Wild Thing, who was a family therapist before she retired, makes an interesting distinction between being uninhibited and being emotionally free. Americans, she says, are indeed less inhibited, but not necessarily emotionally free. I had to think about that for a while, but I’ve come around to her way of seeing it.

Even if it’s not true that Americans are free spirits, though, the belief’s a great counter-balance to the you’re-doing-it-wrong group.

Both responses, I think, stem from the number of rules the British grow up with. As does teasing people about differences. People learn not to call attention to themselves in public. Say you’re out in public and you trip and people rush to help you up. Huge embarrassment. Sat people you know wave their arms to get your attention from a distance.  Ditto, apparently. And so on. Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.

Whether as an American you’re treasured or criticized because you break them will depend on who you hang out with. And whether the comments you hear bother you will depend on how deeply you take these things in.

Talking about the weather—a lot

Britain really does get a lot of rain. Almost as much as people think it does. Enough that the vocabulary for rain is extensive and specialized. It’s raining stair rods. Or pitch forks. It’s chucking it down, or pissing down, or bucketing down, or mizzling—a lighter, mistier version of drizzling and a word I use sometimes for the pure pleasure of hearing it. In the U.S., it rains or drizzles or rains cats and dogs, but that’s about it. Once in a while, I guess, it mists enough to turn mist from a noun to a verb. But if it does anything else I can’t think what it is. We have words for different kinds of storms, from a shower to a hurricane, but for the rain itself? We haven’t been driven by the sheer indoor boredom of being stuck in the house on 356 consecutive rainy days to come up with new words and phrases.

Or maybe the words came from being out in the rain before the invention of anything that even semi-reliably kept a person dry. Naming the damned stuff could keep your mind off your misery. Or at least keep you busy while you were miserable.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day. Marazion.

A rare relevant photo: digging clams on a foggy day in Marazion.

Once you have a vocabulary, you have to say something with it, which is how we get to attitude. It rains enough here that people grow a kind of fatalism about the weather. I say “grow” because it creeps over them the way mold grows on damp walls. Sometimes it comes out as a wry fatalism and sometimes as plain old moaning. (When I lived in the U.S., a moan was nothing more than a sound. Here it’s transformed into an entire attitude, a form of not-gonna-do-anything complaint. A way of life, in fact.)

The content of wry fatalism and moaning is almost the same. It’s the attitude that makes them different.

“I guess we’ve had our summer,” a neighbor said on a gray day that followed some warm, sunny weather.

I knew enough to say, “Yes, and it was a beautiful day.”

He laughed and I congratulated myself: I’d played my hand in the game of wry fatalism. Not bad for a furriner.

On a different day—a sunny one—another neighbor said, “It won’t last.”

Same thought but pure moan. I wasn’t sure how to contribute. Maybe all I needed to do was shake my head mournfully and agree but I didn’t. What help can you expect of a furriner anyway?

Free of either fatalism or moaning (I think) is weather news. People trade bits of this the way American boys once traded baseball cards. A storm’s working its way across the Atlantic. An arctic front’s moving down from Iceland. A warm front’s bringing rain from Spain (really—no plains anywhere to be found but the rain falls anyway). You name it, we tell each other about it, especially if it’s bad weather. We listen to the weather on the TV. We check online. We get updates on our phones. Okay, I don’t. My phone is nothing but a phone, and I’ve given up on the evening news since I read the paper and enough already, how much weather (not to mention news) does one person need? So I’m using we loosely here. But every other single person in the country does all of those things, and every last one of them tells me about it. And as a result I can tell more people, who already know it and have already told me some version of it but it’s okay, this isn’t really about the information, it’s about talking to each other. We’re trading baseball cards. Baseball cards have no intrinsic value. They exist only to be traded.

No one’s weather news quite matches anyone else’s, but if it did what would we have to talk about?

Comparative medical bureaucracies

Of all the phrases the divide British and American English, the one I dread hearing is leave it with me. It’s not a phrase I ever heard in the U.S., and now that I live in Britain I know life is about to spin out of my control when someone says it.

And yes, I do know life’s always out of our control, but we all like to believe, don’t we? We live for the comfort of that illusion. Even when we know we’re full of shit. Maybe especially when we know.

Or some of us like to believe. I like to believe.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael's Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There's a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Irrelevant photo: The causeway to St. Michael’s Mount, emerging as the tide drops. There’s a castle out there, hidden in the fog.

Suppose I need a referral from my GP to a specialist and I was supposed to be given an appointment by Wednesday and here it is the Tuesday after that Wednesday and I still don’t have the letter telling me when the appointment is. So I call to ask what happened. I’ve worked out an approach for this kind of situation. I’m polite and I’m relentless. I don’t demand, I don’t insult, and I don’t go away. This is easier to pull off when I’m advocating for someone else, but I can manage it for myself if I have to.

The receptionist says, “Leave it with me.”

Which means one of two things: 1. I will fix this so fast that whoever screwed it up will be dizzy for a week, or 2. I will make a note of this, bury it under a stack of paper, and forget you ever called, because your referral’s still a bunch of electronic blips in my computer but I don’t remember which file it’s in, or which computer, or what electronic means. Furthermore, I have worse problems than you. Don’t call back.

And I’m never sure which. Except for the don’t call back bit. I’m sure what that means.

I’ve learned to ask, “When will I hear from you?” so at least we’ve agreed on a date after which I’m free to make a pest of myself again, but until then I’m helpless. All my polite don’t-go-awayedness? It’s paralyzed by the leave-it-with-me beam of bureaucracy.

In the abstract, I could probably say, “No, sorry, I can’t leave it with you. Gimme my problem back,” but you know that bureaucracy beam? It’s like kryptonite. It keeps me from forming those words.

I did dodge the beam once, when a neighbor was having a medical crisis and D., who’s been a nurse, armed me with a magic phrase: That’s not acceptable. I listened to myself say it and wondered who I’d turned into, but in fact waiting wasn’t acceptable—it was a crisis—and since the phrase was magic it worked.

But you have to be careful with magic phrases. You can’t just spew that’s not acceptable in all directions and under less pressing conditions.

The leave-it-with-me problem stems, I think, from the British medical system’s paternalistic streak. The U.S. system is also paternalistic, but in a different way and—oh, you know how it is: When you’re not used to something, you notice it. The things you’re used to? They’re invisible. And the way they handle medical appointments here? I notice. If you need one, it will all be done for you and you’ll be told when to appear.

What if you can’t make it? You know, if you have to be in court that day or they’ll issue a bench warrant or you have some similar whim you might want to follow? At that point you get to step in and change the date or the time, but you have to wait to be given the wrong date and time before you can step in. And unless your condition’s a crisis, it’ll come by letter.

As far as I can figure out, this is true of both the National Health Service and private-sector medicine. Because that’s how it’s always been done and why change now just because the telephone’s been invented? And that other, even more modern thing, the inter-whateverit’scalled.

In the U.S., I can remember two systems for making specialist appointments. In one, I was given the name of a doctor and clinic (or a list of several) to call and I made my own appointment. In another, I stood at a desk while someone who worked for the clinic that was referring me made the appointment and could talk with me about whether I expected to be under arrest or in court at any given date and time.

In other ways, the NHS is more egalitarian than the U.S. medical system. I just read a nurse’s comment that “everyone is equal in the NHS; I find that amazing. In India, you can’t challenge a doctor, even if he is wrong. Here, a nurse can tell them straight away.” Unless things have changed since I last heard (and it’s not a topic I keep up on), challenges from nurses aren’t welcome in the U.S. yet.

But patients don’t seem to have claimed their power from the system, even if nurses have. So listen up, bureaucracy: I’m registering my complaint. Can I leave it with you?

Making a nice cup of tea

When my British friends seriously want some tea, they get specific about what they want: not just tea but a nice cup of tea.

Let’s take that apart: We can leave a and of alone without destabilizing anything important. But think about the word nice. Because you don’t just have a cup of tea in this country, you have a nice cup of tea. Even when the nice is silent, if you listen carefully you can hear it resonating in the background. I need a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea.

And if the cup of tea you get tastes like second-hand dishwater? It’s all the more disappointing, because what you wanted was that nice cup of tea, not this travesty you’ve been handed.

In the U.S., we never sit down to a nice cup of coffee. We drink coffee, we make coffee, we drop by our friends’ houses for coffee, and we go out for coffee. But we don’t expect that comforting nice from it. It’s just, you know, an ultra-fat mocha semiccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce with a side of chocolate chip muffin and a triple bacon cheeseburger deluxe on a sesame seed bun. With mayo.

In other words, it’s no big deal.

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

I don’t know what it says about our two cultures that one seeks comfort from a hot drink and the other doesn’t, but I’ve known people here in Britain to welcome a cup of tea the way I’d expect someone to welcome a stiff drink after a day when the computer blew up, the basement flooded, and the dog filed for divorce; I’ve known them to take the first sip and say, like a borderline alcoholic after a brief flirtation with sobriety, “I needed that.”

Or maybe that’s me I’m quoting. If so, forget it. I’m not British. Or I am, but not deeply enough to count.

So let’s move on. People who expect comfort from a hot drink seem to find it. Point made, in a wobbly fashion.

After nice comes cup. Go into any cafe any you can ask for a pot of tea, and in some for a mug. In most places you’ll get a pot whether you ask for it or not, and all of that is fine, but if the nice gets spoken at all, it comes attached to a cup—one of those curved shells you wrap your hands around while the warmth seeps into your half-frozen soul. The thing you bring to your lips, allowing all the love that went into its making to flow into your metaphorical as opposed to your literal heart. It may have been made in a pot, but whoever made it poured it into a cup for you and that’s what we’re talking about— that cup and its the contents, and by extension the acts of making and handing.

We’ve gone well beyond the rational here. This is about caring and nurturing. It’s about love itself, in an indirect way.

So tea is central to the culture. Does that mean an American can’t march in and make a decent cup? Americans seem to hold one of three opinions:

  1. [Fill in the blank] criticizes my tea-making and always will because I’m American. Even if I do it right, I’ll never do it right.
  2. I’ve been to Britain and read every book ever published on the subject. Tea is my religion and I’ve returned home to convert a refined few among the heathens.
  3. Oh, get over it. It’s just a drink. Wanna cup?

If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you can guess which category I’m in.

I don’t know how many categories British opinion falls into on the subject, and that may be for the best. However, in my unbiased opinion, I make a decent cup of tea, and if a friend’s in serious need I can even make a nice cup of tea. It’s hot, it’s strong (except when I make it for M., who drinks it so weak that I just boil the water and wave a teabag through the steam), and under normal circumstances it comes with something home baked.

And with that we arrive to the heart of this post. How do you make a nice cup of tea?

Am I qualified to answer that question? Do I care? Uncertainty hasn’t stopped me in the past, and neither has good sense. I don’t see why they should now. I predict, though, that from here on everyone who drinks tea will disagree with me about something. Have a good time, folks. I’m looking forward to it.

You start with the tea. If you’re American, this is the hard part.

Leaf tea: You can go to a fancy tea store and buy leaf tea, choosing one that was picked before sunrise from plants that have never been spoken to harshly. And you can pay any amount of money you like for the privilege, as long the amount is large. If you live in a tea-drinking country, on the other hand, you can buy leaf tea in a supermarket. No one in sight will know how the plants were spoken to or when the tea was picked. But it’s tea.

Wherever you buy it, try a few kinds and see which one you like.

Which means you have to brew it, and the first trick is to avoid stuffing it into anything that won’t let the water flow through. I’ve tried a variety of brewing gizmos over the years and most of them are as useless as stuffing the leaves in an old sock, and that includes the cloth or paper gizmos that imitate teabags. Why you want to avoid teabags and then use something that imitates them I don’t know, especially when they don’t work as well as the teabags you’re avoiding. (I am going to catch such hell for saying that. I can hardly wait.) Choose the wrong gizmo to stuff your leaves into and you’ll end up with expensive tannish water.

Open baskets do work—in this barbarian’s opinion.

In Britain, a lot of the cafes that use leaf tea dump it directly into the pot and give you a strainer, which comes with something to rest it on so you don’t end up splattering teadrops everywhere. Because the leaves are swimming around in the water, you don’t have to worry about whether the water’s flowing through them. The tea will be good and strong, but if you’re slow about drinking it, it’ll turn bitter. Some cafes give you an extra pot with hot water to thin it out with once that happens, but even with the extra water it sometimes gets strong enough to make you grow hair on your tongue.

Teabags: British supermarkets sell more kinds of teabags than they do baked beans, which is another way of saying you have a lot to pick from. If you’re in the U.S., your choices are limited. You can buy Twinings or something along those lines—one of those brands that entombs each teabag in a little plasticky-foily packet so you’ll understand how special it is, and how special you are to have bought it. I hate Twinings. Which—according to Kate Fox’s Watching the English—is because I’m not upper class. The lower classes drink their tea strong. The upper classes wants theirs to be as refined as they (think they) are, so their tea has to be pale and (lack-of-objectivity alert here) flavorless. So if you’re American and you like Twinings, go ahead and drink it and know that you’ve got more class than I have. Or want, thanks.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought Lyons tea from an Irish store near us and it was strong enough to turn my hair gray. Just look at the photo I use. Back when I drank coffee, I had (mostly) black hair. But Lyons is great stuff. If I hadn’t been able to get that, I think I’d have gone for Lipton’s rather than Twinings. At least it has some oomph to it.

Do I use leaf or teabags? Teabags. I used to keep some leaf tea for special occasions but the tea I made with it was never as good and how’s that a way to celebrate?

Water: This is the other ingredient in tea. If you want, you can use bottled water and it may or may not make your tea taste better. It will be more expensive. Your choice. You can use a kettle or a pan to boil it. If you’re in Britain, you’ll almost surely use an electric kettle because it’s fast. You’ll use it so often that you never put it away. If you’re in the U.S. you can still use an electric kettle but only if you’re willing to invest some time in the project. I grew old waiting for electric kettles to boil in the U.S. I’d have been 56 if I’d just put the water on the stove, but no, I had to buy an electric kettle and so I’m 68.

I have no idea why American electric kettles take so long.

What you can’t do is stick the water in the microwave. Even if it’s in a nice cup. Because microwaves don’t get the water not enough. The true secret of a nice cup of tea is that the water has to be boiling when you pour it over the tea. Or, okay, if it stopped boiling 30 seconds before I get to it, I don’t quibble, I just pour. But if it didn’t boil, or if it boiled back when my hair was black, it’s not worth using.

Do you have to warm the kettle? In my book, it depends on how cold the kettle is. Which depends on how cold the house is. If it’s cold, pour a little of the water in it, slosh it around, let it sit if you want to, warm the thing up, then pour the water out and make your tea. And if you’re making a single cup? I’ve never stopped to warm a cup, although it makes as much sense as warming the kettle. And the tea’s been fine, thanks.

I’ve read that you shouldn’t reboil the water because all the air goes out of it, or all the—oh, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not. All the experts agree. So put in as much as you need and no more.

How long do you brew it? Well, how strong do you like your tea? I remember a huge ad in Paddington Station saying that after five minutes tea was stewed, not brewed. Stewed tea is bad. Why? Because a huge poster in Paddington Station said so.

I don’t leave my tea that long unless I wander off to do something else and forget it, in which case it may be as much as ten minutes before I wander back. If I’m in a hurry, I stir it. What you (and you’ll notice how seamlessly we’ve switched from me to you here) don’t want to do, if you’re using teabags, is squeeze them. It makes the tea bitter. Really. It does. Just lift them out, all dripping and nasty. Or leave them in, but if the tea’s going to be sitting a while, you may end up with a hairy tongue.

Add milk. Or milk and sugar if you feel strongly about it. Then sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. With love.

How people find a blog

Let’s talk about search engine terms. No, I’m not going to hand out blogging advice. You won’t find any advice here that you’d want to follow, on blogging or any other subject. What I want to explore is that strange and lovely world of search engines and algorithms and other things I don’t understand, about which I want to ask the following profound question: What the hell are they thinking?

I know, thinking’s the wrong word. Algorithms don’t think. Someone does, though. A human mind, with an actual human being attached to it, programs these suckers and sets them loose on the world trusting that they’ll connect the right question to the right answer.

Or not caring if they do.

A chough, pronounced "chuff," Cornwall's official bird. It was driven to extinction in Cornwall, but a few years ago a pair flew over from Ireland and nested successfully, and a handful can now be found. Those who know are keeping their locations secret. I know and I ain't telling. Photo by Ida Swearingen, who ain't telling either.

A chough, pronounced “chuff,” Cornwall’s official bird. It was driven to extinction in Cornwall, but a few years ago a pair flew over from Ireland and bred successfully and a handful can now be found. Those who know are keeping their locations secret. I know, at least vaguely, and I’m not telling. Photo by Ida Swearingen, and she isn’t telling either.

And then there are the people who type some of these terms into Google. Spare a moment to wonder what they’re thinking as well.

So here’s how people found Notes from the U.K. (I’ll do a separate post on vaguely relevant search terms. Sooner or later.) They typed in (with Google’s lower case format carefully preserved):

good comments with u: All my good comments contain that letter. Except this one. My bad ones? They don’t.

who are the bigwigs in legal highs: . Okay, I’m pretty clear on what this poor kid was looking for and can make an educated guess or three about what they planned to do with the information. And they were so disappointed to end up in the middle of a discussion of lawyers’ wigs. Sorry, kid. Now get off the internet and go finish your homework. And remember to use the letter u.

kittens dash into rooms they shouldn’t: Rooms and dash are clear enough to work with, but we need a definition of shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because they’ll get scolded? Because they’ll get eaten by the Minotaur? Or the Merrimac? Anyway, we need to define the term. And we need video, which I don’t do. And come to think of it, how young a kitten do they want to see? So I was a disappointment here. I do have a page of kitten pictures, which I haven’t updated lately now that I think about it, but I can’t imagine I’m high up the Google list. How many web sites and blogs did the googler go to before being disappointed by mine? What is it about kittens and the internet that someone went through that many links looking for this?

dog poo for rubbish collection Cornwall: For this, they need to contact the county. Unless they’re looking for dog poo itself. If they can convince me it’s a good idea to donate it, we have plenty. And a nice collection of the cat variety as well. But, well, I will need convincing.

Sumerdress: These are what they wore in Sumeria? Sorry, this isn’t a fashion blog.

kitten club: I can make a fair guess about which regular readers would  join, but I don’t know where to refer them. And a kitten a month? It’s too many. No matter how cute they are. Plus it’s wrong to ship them. They need to be hand delivered, lovingly.

notes of the kettle: This was weird enough that I googled it myself and was, sure enough, led to one of my posts, “Putting the kettle on,” as well as to notes from a community meeting that included the subhead “Vott is kettle,” which is all about JavaScript. Why is said “vott” instead of “what” is a mystery. Or maybe “vott” isn’t a mispronunciation of what but some arcane bit of geek speak. You know: “I’m going to vott your computer now. Stand back.” I’d love to give you a link to this so you don’t think I made it up, but I didn’t copy it down at the time—I was too busy being baffled—and it won’t come up again, but if you want to buy a whistling kettle, several of those links popped up. I think it was when I typed in “vott is kettle.” The connection’s obvious, isn’t it? The kettle whistles and you run into the kitchen yelling, “Vott iz itt dis time?” (Sorry, my phony accent’s a bit woozy. I’m not sure what language group I’m supposed to be imitating and I doubt I’d get it right if I was sure. Normally I wouldn’t stoop to making fun of someone’s accent, but it’s justified this time. Necessary even.) You can find out about Kettle Knudson, who’s either from or visited Bemidji, Minnesota, I’m not sure which, but the story’s in the Bemidji Pioneer. On this I could give you some links but not having them introduces an element of randomness that’s way more fun. What does it all mean, bartender?

tumblr pics of fully clothed grandmothers: I hardly know where to start with this one. Is a website somewhere offering pics of semi-naked grandmothers? And if there is, how do we know the pictures are of genuine grandmothers and not women like me, of a grandmotherly age but without grandchildren, which by any definition I understand disqualifies me from grandmotherhood? I mean, how much less of a turn-on is it once you know the background’s been faked?  You won’t find me on any site of that sort. Not only won’t I lower myself to pretend I have grandchildren but because my clothes are tattooed on, so I’m always fully clothed. Even in the shower. So, how did they find Notes with that in the search engine? The only one of these words I remember using is of, although it’s not impossible that I said everyone somewhere or other was fully clothed. It sounds like me. And in many of the places I go, including the supermarket, they are. Time after time. In fact, even as I type this, I’m fully clothed. It’s chilly in the morning at this time of year. I only frighten the neighbors in warm weather. As for what the googler was looking for, I can only speculate. And I’m not sure I want to.

Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters

In September, Alexander Wood was in court for having posed as the duke of Marlborough (there’s a real one; I just checked) and for having run up a bill in the neighborhood of £10,000 at expensive London hotels. No one asked him for identification because they thought it would be “inappropriate to ask.”  I mean, this is (purportedly) a duke, after all. You don’t do a stop-and-frisk on him, and you don’t ask for i.d., even when he runs up a huge whackin’ bill. They did eventually get suspicious when he bought drinks for fellow guests—something I gather no aristocrat would do.

Setting aside this one person’s motivation (the article makes it sound, not surprisingly, like mental health comes into it), Britain does tempt a person to borrow titles.

Irrelevant photo: teasels

Irrelevant photo: teasels

When I went online to donate the money from our village fundraiser to the Red Cross, I was offered a choice of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms, Doctor, Lady, Professor, Reverend, Dame, Sir, Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Sister, Lord, Canon, and Other. Oh, wheee! I lost my nerve before finding out whether Other would have given me a blank space to fill in the title of my choice, but I expect it would have.

As an aside, I was once called a dame, but no one mistook me for an aristocrat and no hotel bill was involved. And it wasn’t a compliment.

The Guardian’s subscription form despairs of coming up with a complete list and just leaves a blank line, where you can play as much as you dare. You want to be a general, or the Lord Mayor of Mill Crick? Feel free. Then sit back and see if your correspondence is addressed appropriately. And complain when it isn’t.

Why the blank instead of the list? I can’t help picturing some committee trying to list everything necessary to this title-obsessed land and sinking under the weight of the task. Why, for example, include Colonel but not General? And since this is the Guardian, a generally leftish and egalitarian paper, what about Private? Don’t privates deserve the respect of their title? And since the women members of the House of Lords are addressed as Baroness (something I happen to know because I’ve written letters to a fair few of them, and there’s a tale of its own), doesn’t that merit a mention? Or does Lady cover it? I haven’t a clue. If they’re Lady Whatsit, even though you address them as Baroness, what do they address themselves as? And what about the Barons? The male members of the House of Lords are Lords, not Barons. No, I don’t understand it either. But there are real barons out there, aren’t there? Granted, they probably don’t read the Guardian, but what if they wanted to?

And what about all the Lord Mayors dotted around the country. And the Counsellors: Spare a moment’s thought for all those long-suffering folks who sit on Parish Councils around the country, doing their unpaid and non-party-political bit for the most local level of local government? And Citizen. It was a popular title during the French Revolution. Give it half a chance and it could catch on again.

You can see the problem. Either the committee voted for the blank line and fled or else they’re still meeting, trying to complete the list, sinking deeper into despair with every passing week. Several of its members have been hospitalized for stress and clinical-level nit-picking.

This is what happens in a status-obsessed society. Everyone with a title needs to be recognized, placated, bowed to even.

And on the lowest level, where the rest of us live our lives? I still can’t get myself called Ms. Instead of Mrs.  No matter how often and politely I ask.