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.

What people really want to know about Britain, part something

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

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

 

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

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

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

No, I can’t explain it either.

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

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

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

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

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

And then it moves on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s how the crocodile got its tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I go watch?

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

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

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

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