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.

How people find a blog, part 5ish

Bloggers are obsessed with how people find their blog, and how to get more of them to find it. So let’s take a sensible, sober look at how people use search engines to find Notes from the U.K. Because what, I ask you, is more important in your lives than my blog?

Why nothing, thanks for asking.

First, a few notes of explanation: 1, I know how people find Notes because in the administrative background of all WordPress blogs is a page that (among other things) lists the questions that lead people to it. Most questions appear as “unknown search terms,” which annoys the hell out of me because of the fun I might be missing out on. So what follow are some of the terms that aren’t unknown. 2, For some reason, almost no questions use capital letters. I did once find a cap hidden in the middle of a word, but otherwise you can’t have ‘em. I’ve followed that style here, although I’ve had to fight Word to keep it from capitalizing all sorts of things. But when something’s really unimportant, I’m relentless. 3, None of the questions have question marks. I’ve kept that style too. Just thought I’d explain, because it makes strange reading. 4. I feel compelled to answer some of these questions, since it’s only polite. Even though, yes, I know the people who wrote them aren’t likely to still be around.

Irrelevant, and by now out of season, photo: foxgloves.

Irrelevant, and by now out of season, photo: foxgloves.

Let’s approach this by topic:

Great Britain

My most common search question is why Great Britain’s called Great Britain. This comes in various forms. Here are a few: why is england called great britain (it’s not, dear; it’s called England; Great Britain is called Great Britain); when were we called great britain (we still are; it’s a geographical term, not a compliment and not a historical judgment).

I just plonked that into a search engine myself (it’s the easy way to find my original post so I can link back to it) and, holy shit, I’m above Wikipedia, although below Quora.

This time I also found a question about great British runners—a topic on which I’m stunningly ignorant and on which I’ve never written. But the search engine found great. It found Britain. Maybe in the same post I said I wasn’t running for office. I doubt it, but it’s true that I’m not. Close enough. Match made, the search engine said. I’m outta here. Whoever asked that, my apologies. Hope you tried again and found someone sensible.

Wigs

The next most common question, although I admit this is guesswork since I haven’t bothered to count, is about the wigs British lawyers and judges wear in court, and these questions always come with an adjective. For example, why do brits wear those stupid wigs in court (only the judges and lawyers wear them; you need to know this; if you’re the defendant and turn up in one, no one will think you’re cute; except me, so let me know and I’ll be there taking notes) and why do british lawyers wear those dumb wigs (it’s only the barristers, and they have to).

What’s begun to fascinate me about these questions is that they’re mini-essays, every last opinionated one of them. People who want to know about the wigs just can’t help sounding off. They’re horrified (no one ever says those wonderful wigs) and they want the world and its search engines to know it.

And in case you landed here through one of those essaylets, whatever adjective you used, I agree with you.

Food and Drink

Most of these are about brussels sprouts. Really. The latest ones are boxing day/why brussels sprouts and how do british eat sprouts (with their feet while lying under the table, of course; I thought everyone knew that).

Now I’ll admit that this isn’t a full survey of what people want to know about British food. The only questions that lead to Notes are the ones about topics I’ve written on (with a few exceptions that will come up later), so that limits things, but I’ve also written about insanely expensive Easter eggs, Pancake Day and sticky toffee pudding. Is anyone interested? Nope. Either the search engines or the searchers themselves stare right past those. My best guess is that they’re not what the rest of the world thinks of when they think of British food.

The rest of the world, however, does think of beer when it thinks of Britain, and I get a steady trickle of questions about British beer and—getting right down to what matters—its alcohol content.

I also get a small group of questions about tea. Nothing fits the British national stereotype better than tea. This latest survey’s tea question is not actually a question. It’s a statement: i always ask for an extra pot of hot water with my pot of tea. Which is, in its odd way, charming. It’s a tiny snapshot from someone’s life. What’s it doing in a search engine? I have no idea. What did the writer hope to find? A kindred spirit? In case they did, if you always ask for an extra pot of hot water, please type me too into Google and see if you can connect. I’m just sure the spirit of the great googlemaster will be happy to connect you.

And since all the advice I usually ignore tells bloggers that they should link back to their old posts because the world is just panting to read more, more, more of them (and incidentally because if people clink onto another post they register as more page views), I’ll say here and now that I’ve written more about tea than anyone who doesn’t live in a tea-drinking nation will think is physically possible. Here’s one. If you want more, you’ll have to search. Because even though I’m tucking in an obnoxious number of back links this time, I really don’t kid myself that you want to spend your whole day here.

Intercultural Mayhem

Americans in particular want to know what the British think of them, and as far as I can tell what a lot of them are really asking is why the British hate them. There’s an interesting cultural/political lurking study lurking at the bottom of that if you’re in the mood to do it. In this latest group of search questions, the one that expressed this best was things that british hate about american tourists (oh, I dunno; maybe the assumption that they’ll all hate you?).

The flip side of that is the question what do tourists think of america (various things; it’ll depend on who they are and where they go and what thoughts they brought with them, not to mention where they’re from; it’s kind of like what tourists think of Britain; they don’t all get together and put their thoughts to a vote, then throw out the ones that don’t win).

That leads to the question what do the english talk about (the weather; all other topics are banned; it gets really boring around here sometimes).

No, that question deserves a fuller answer, which can’t fit inside parentheses. What people say here a lot (as janebasil of Making it Write reminded me at some, ahem, length in the comments section of my Absurdistan post) is either “thank you” or “sorry.” The problem is that these aren’t a topic. You can’t actually discuss them, all you can do is say them. Repeatedly. Many times during the course of a day. Or an hour. Or five minutes. Sorry to have taken your time with that, but thank you for reading it.

Someone else asked, why do the uk like narrow roads, and this is so tempting that I have to break out of parentheses to answer it. 1. The entire nation’s agoraphobic and gets anxious on wide roads. 2. Austerity. They used to be as wide as American roads but the government’s been selling off the margins in an attempt to balance the budget. Yellow lines are on sale this week. If you want one, you’d better hurry. And you get a further discount if you buy a pair. 3. It traces way back into their childhoods and would take several years of mass analysis to tease out.

Enough. I’d google why do people ask silly questions but I’m afraid I’d end up on some other bloggers list of silly questions if I click through to whatever Google suggests.

Another search term was the single word emmits. (Ooh, I’m at the top of the list here, above the Urban Dictionary. That’ll change my entire life.) To do a search on emmits, you have to either be Cornish or have spent some time here, because it’s the Cornish word for ants—and by extension for tourists from anywhere that isn’t Cornwall (not just, or even primarily, Americans). Like most words meaning people who aren’t us, it’s not a compliment.

Why did someone do a search on it, given that they already knew the word? It’s another one of the internet’s mysteries.

That leads neatly to a sensible question, what’s it like being an incomer in cornwall. By way of an answer, let me tell you a story that someone who moved here several decades ago told me: She mentioned to someone Cornish that she’d been warned the Cornish wouldn’t talk to her but that in here experience they’d had been friendly.

“Well,” he said, “you talk to us.”

Which does make a difference.

Someone else wanted to know about british class system foreigners. I don’t know what the answer there is, mostly because I’m not sure what the question in, but my sense is that as a foreigner I stand outside it. I’m happy there, but if your goal is to be an insider, I doubt it’ll work. See last week’s post about black shoes if you’re wondering how easy it is to break in.

Language

inconsistency of american english, someone wrote. Inconsistent with what? British English? Itself? Nuclear physics? English is an inconsistent language, in all its varieties. Don’t expect anything else and you won’t be unhappy. Except, of course, if you’re studying for a spelling test. Or trying to memorize the grammar. Or trying to look literate in print, because English is always hiding some damn thing you aren’t sure of.

And don’t expect American English to act like British English. Or Australian. Or Liberian. Because It’s not British. Or Australian. Or Liberian.

Someone else wanted to know about british musical terminology and would be better off going someplace sensible, although I did once get dragged kicking a screaming into the thicket of crotchets, breves, semibreves, and hemisemidemiquavers that the musically competent Brits I know mention with the serene conviction that they can communicate with me. I understand that they communicate with each other perfectly well, in spite of using those words, and I have tried to make sense of them. Honestly I have. But if I inhale I get the giggles and go away knowing nothing more than when I started.

I’m not sure whether this last query goes under language or intercultural mayhem, but somebody typed in, yes tickety boo. Twice, either because they didn’t find what they wanted the first time and thought they’d try again with exactly the same phrase (and follow the same link that didn’t get them what they wanted) or because they liked what they found and wanted to go back to it. But what did they want? A world where everything’s tickety-boo? Maybe, because it means, basically, fine. As ways to improve the world go, typing that into a search engine strikes me as one of the less effective possible approaches. But who am I to criticize? We all do what we can.

Miscellaneous

One of my favorite queries in this batch is compartive of the weter. I’m going to cut this one some slack on the theory that it’s a second-language question, and you’d have to be a victim of my French to know how deeply uncritical I should be of second-language oddities. Or while we’re at it, my Italian. Even my Spanish, which isn’t bad given that Americans are, if you’ll forgive a generalization, godawful at languages, but it’s still a bit strange.

The question here is, What made a search engine decide that I knew something about this? I do use the word of. And the. Frequently. Beyond that, though, I can’t claim much expertise.

Someone else wanted to know about lupine leaf curl treatment and should really have been directed to a sensible site. I grow lupines, or I did before I stopped slaughtering slugs for about a month this summer and the horrors chewed through the leaves like a horde of locusts. I think I’m going to have to replant. But before all that happened, I took and posted a photo. And the caption used the word lupine. That’s all it takes to become an expert.

Two questions came through on topics I do know about: how to decline an award nomination and spidery corners, although the person who typed that second one may have been looking for advice about spiders, not this blog, which is about the spidery corners of British culture–or so I claimed when I set it up. But I do have spiders in the corners of our house, and I’m damned if I know how to get them out. If anyone has advice, I’d be grateful.

And there we are for another week. Now go to Google and have some fun. You’ll baffle a blogger somewhere.

How people find a blog, part 4(ish)

It’s that time again, kids—the time when I dig deep into the questions people type into search engines that lead them, however bizarrely, to Notes from the U.K. I’ve left actual quotes in lower case, as search engines do.

Let’s start with:

Old favorites

The most common question I get is why Britain is called Great Britain. Sometime in June, as Britain wobbled toward the referendum on whether leave the European Union, questions about this went through the roof.

Admittedly, I have a low roof, but still, they increased noticeably. I’m not sure if this is because I became more active online (I started answering questions on Quora, which may have convinced search engines that I actually know something or may be completely irrelevant) or because people wanted to be reassured of the greatness of the place that, without the European Union, would be all on its own again. If it’s the latter, I disappointed them, because all great means in this context is big. I doubt anyone changed their vote because of that, but it’s worth knowing.

The question came in an assortment of forms. The most interesting was, “whistle great britain called great britain.” I’m going to guess that’s predictive text. Why do people keep using predictive text?

Irrelevant photo: a dry stone wall, with lichen. Or if you want to see it as a metaphor, feel free.

Irrelevant photo: a dry stone wall, with lichen. Or if you want to see it as a metaphor, feel free.

One person wanted to know “why are we no longer called great britain?” We are, dear. It’s just that there’s this whole set of overlapping names for the landmass, the country, and the component nations. If by the time people reach the end of the list they’re too tired to say “Great Britain” and settle for a breathy “Britain,” it’s no wonder.

A small but steady number of people want to know about lemon drizzle cake—a post I completely blew and should take down but never remember to. It’s not the only recipe I’ve posted, but does anyone want to know about baking powder biscuits, or scones? Nope, it’s always lemon drizzle cake.

A fair number of people wanted to know about storms that hit the U.K. and Ireland in 2015 or 2016. I may (or may not) have amused them, but I doubt I told them what they want to know. But search engines don’t distinguish between information and a simple mention. Sorry, folks.

Another question that comes up each time is about lawyers and their wigs. The most interesting of these was “do british lawyers own their wigs?” (I’ve added the question mark, although search engines leave it off. I just can’t help myself.) The answer, of course, is no. They just grab one out of a box as they go into court, hoping the last wearer didn’t have head lice, then throw it back in when they leave. It’s sort of like the dress-up box in a preschool. If they run short—too many lawyers one day and too few wigs—the last one has to grab a dry mop and set it on his or her head. Sometimes a wise guy will sneak in a bridal veil and someone will be stuck wearing that—and someone will not necessarily be female. In both cases, everyone pretends not to notice the difference.

Of course they own their own wigs.

I just went back to read my original post about lawyers and wigs. I did manage to answer the question. Even though, keep in mind, that when I wrote it no one had asked it.

Every so often, someone will vary the question and ask about judges and wigs, but mostly it’s about lawyers.

One question was whether British barristers feel foolish wearing them. (The wigs, in these questions, are always described as silly. I won’t argue with that.) I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know, but I’m guessing that after a while you stop thinking much about it. I once wore a gorilla suit. I felt extremely silly. But you know, if I’d worn it a second time, I’d have felt less silly.

I made an extremely short gorilla, in case you need to know that.

Whenever I review the search engine questions, I’ll find a handful of Americans who wanted to know what the British think of them. Mostly they want to know if the British hate them (settle down, folks; the rest of the world doesn’t spend all its time thinking about you), but one wanted to know “what brits love about americans.” As far as I can tell, it’s the accent.

One person wanted to know about tourists who hated England. I’m sure you could find a few out there. For everything (turn, turn, turn, if you’re old enough to remember the song) there’s someone out there who hates it.

Another person wanted to know what British sprouts are. This is probably about eating brussels sprouts at Christmas. And if it isn’t, that’s what they landed in the middle of anyway.

Next topic:

Sex

Someone wanted to know about “Britain aunties hot.” I’m guessing that’s about sex, not weather. I’m also guessing they didn’t find what they were looking for here, but who’s to say what gets another human being going? As long as they don’t bother me or anyone else who isn’t interested, that’s fine.

Another search was for “sex maniac american english.” This may be about language—do we use the same phrase? Yes, dear, I believe we do. Or it could be about a person. Or—. Oh, stop. I don’t want to know.

Someone wanted to know about a British sex scandal in 2015. I’m sure there was one but I can’t think what it was. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write about it.

Tea

Now that fewer people smoke, what should follow sex if it’s isn’t tea? The most charming of these questions read, “dropped by to have a nice cup of tea.” Since they didn’t physically do that, I’ll guess the phrase was all they could reconstruct of something they once read. I have a post that uses the phrase “a nice cup of tea.” Link made. The search engine congratulated itself and went home for the day.

Several people seem to have been looking for a poem about—or possibly called—tea on the lawn. One wanted an explanation, others were only looking for it. I tried Bartleby, which is good at tracing down literary references, and I got nowhere. I began to suspect that some class somewhere had an assignment involving the poem and googling is what passes for research these days. (Damn, I sound old. And crabby.)

Anyone know the poem?

After a week or two, the queries disappeared.

Boaty McBoatface

This was another popular item. Queries included: “boaty mcboatface not the titanic” (unarguably true, even if I don’t know what it means), “where are the answers to boaty mcboatface post?” (I’m not sure; where are the questions?), and several references to Boaty McBoatface and Blackadder. I seem to have become an official Boaty McBoatface site. I couldn’t be prouder.

Weather

Someone wanted to know how cold it gets in Cornwall. Answer: not very. That’s not a scientific measurement, so how about this? In the ten years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen it drop below freezing at night, but not all that often. I can’t remember a day when it didn’t rise above freezing. I won’t swear that it’ll always be like that, but ten years seems like a fair sample.

Searches that made sense

People looked for anglophile blogs, for Americans in Cornwall blogs, for Americans in Britain blogs. A couple of people, bless their hearts, typed in my name and The Divorce Diet, which (she said casually) just happens to be my most recent novel. It was only a few people, but they makde me feel good.

Strange searches

“thanksgiving.hoo.” No idea what this means, but I expect they landed on a post about Thanksgiving. Hoo, boy.

Now that I’ve bumped those two words up against each other, if anyone else googles thanksgiving.hoo, that’s where they’ll land.

“gotten manor isle of wight.” I googled this and didn’t find my blog, but I may not have gone deep enough. I can’t reconstruct the sentence that brought gotten close enough to manor to set off sparks, but I’m sure it’s buried in here somewhere. Several Gotten Manors exist around the country, along with at least one Gotton Manor.

“lonetransparency.blogspot.” I googled this and ended up on Pinterest. Want a pair of transparent socks? Or a shot glass shaped like a cowboy boot? That’s what I found there.

“cornish story book with work camp.” Googling this brought up a bunch of storybook links, including one featuring the Famous Five—a series of British kids’ book that includes the worst line of dialogue ever written: “Woof woof,” said Timmy.

Timmy, in case you’re worried, is a dog.

I know, if you’re British and over I’m not sure what age, you probably have a warm spot in your heart for the Famous Five books, and I don’t want to be either culturally insensitive or just plain snotty, but they’re really, truly, completely awful. “ ‘Woof woof,’ said Timmy”? Come on.

“shiner book uk.” I have no idea what this means. Neither does Google, which asked if I wanted shiner bock. Oddly enough, another question was about “shiner bock uk.” Which seems to be a beer, although Google also offered me stain removing powder.

Strange searches that almost make sense

Someone typed in, “improving myself and the lord’s house.” If this turned up on a religious bloggers site, it would make sense. Here, though? I don’t do religion. I don’t do self-improvement. I don’t mind if other people do as long as they don’t get all evangelical on me. I can only assume that the search engines are developing a sense of humor.

One person typed, “remembering latin grammar.” I never knew any Latin grammar to remember or forget but may have used the phrase Latin grammar in writing about a few absurdities that have been imposed on English because they echo Latin grammar.

Damn. I’ve used the phrase again, increasing the chances of muddying some poor soul’s search for information about Latin grammar. Whoever you are, I apologize.

Someone else was looking for “notes from the avon and somerset police.” Sigh. If you need a matchmaker, don’t use a search engine. I did mention the Avon and Somerset police. My blog title uses the phrase notes from. Put the two together and you have something other than what the person was looking for.

And finally, “strunk and white lawnmowers.” Bizarrely enough, I know exactly what this one’s about. It has to do with the distinction (in American but not British English) between that and which, which (not that) the grammar reference by Strunk and White illustrates with a couple of sentences about lawnmowers.

How strange is it that someone with a lousy memory can pull that out of the murky depths, without having to look it up? I didn’t remember writing about it, but I did, and if you want to find it, it’s here.

Nine reasons I ignore SEO

Let’s start with basics. SEO is short for search engine optimization. Bloggers (along with other people, but never mind them) obsess about it. Our goal is to lure in innocents who are searching the internet. Won’t you step into my parlor, said the blogger to the fly. Won’t you read 107 of my posts and hit Follow and stay here forever, thus bumping up my stats.

Stats? They’re the things that tell you how many people read what bits of your blog, and what country they’re from, and assorted other stuff, and they’re never high enough. We all want more, more, more.

So to get more people to stop by, you try to make yourself as visible to search engines as possible. You optimize yourself. You dig a niche out of the crumbling riverbank of the internet. Or maybe that’s the crumbling riverbank of what was once your creativity. The metaphor’s a little crumbly itself, but I’ll come back to that issue about creativity. You do all sorts of stuff, some of which borders on the corporate (all that stuff about becoming a brand) and some of which works at least some of the time.

Yet another irrelevant photo

Yet another irrelevant photo: flowers.

If you’re good at it, you provide what searchers looking for and they’re happy and either stay or come back, and you’re almost happy, although your stats are still never high enough. Addiction’s like that. You check your stats and see that your views have shot up. Or that they haven’t, in which case you tweak your S. You maximize your O. You tone down that pesky E.

You check your stats again. You remind yourself that yesterday’s stats won’t have changed but you check them again anyway. Because addiction’s like that.

I do check my stats, partly because I’m addicted and partly because the questions that lead people to my blog can be bizarre and finding a particularly good one adds a dash of insanity to my day. The insanity I generate on my own isn’t half as much fun. But the serious SEOing? I’ve read about it. In spire of what I’m saying here, I’ve appreciated the advice and learned from some of it. I’ve even made good use of some of it. But it has a way of taking over your brain. So although I’m not arguing that anyone else should follow my example, for the most part I ignore it.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that as I wrote this I couldn’t help imagining people arguing with me. So if you want to, argue with me. Or agree. It’ll make an interesting discussion. And to the people who write about SEO and do it well, I do appreciate what I’ve learned from you. It’s just that taking it too seriously was threatening my writing.

Why am I offering you nine reasons? Because the internet loves numbered lists. Offer people three reasons they shouldn’t use nail files, eleven ways to charm wild rabbits, or five reasons to paint their walls midnight blue, and they’ll click on that link. Or a certain number of them will. Even though they’ve been terrified of rabbits since childhood, their landlord does the painting and only buys white, and because their English isn’t great they only understand file in the context of papers and file drawers, so nail file makes no sense to them. But it’s a list. It involves numbers. The just have to click.

So. I ignore SEO because:

  1. I hate numbered lists. They’re about simplicity, and life isn’t simple. The interesting stuff—and most of the good jokes—involve complexity. It’s true that numbered lists are a nifty organizing tool, but honestly, people, they’re not the only one. They’re overdone.
  2. What people are looking for from numbered lists, whether they know it or not, is advice. I don’t give advice.
  3. If I do give advice, it will be in a moment of weakness and highly suspect. I advise you to ignore it. I have your best interests at heart here.
  4. SEO is about niches and I don’t exactly have a niche. Travel? Not really, although travelers may be interested. Expat? Expats are nothing but immigrants with a coating of education, money, culture, invisible ethnicity, or some combination of the above. If other people want to call themselves expats, fine by me, but I’m an immigrant. Google immigrant blog, though, and you’ll find one or two, but mostly you’ll find sites campaigning against immigration or offering information and advice about how to immigrate. Immigrant blog is not a niche. Besides, people trying to immigrate are so desperate for a toehold in this hostile world that making jokes about it from my own safe position borders on the obscene. Or forget borders. It’s planted dead center in the middle of it. Is this a humor blog, then? There’s something dismal about hanging a sign above your work saying, “This is funny.” When I worked as an editor and a cover letter told me the enclosed was a humorous article, I counted myself forewarned. It wasn’t. Ever.
  5. Even if we were to decide that in spite of everything Notes is to some extent an expat blog (I read several, and a couple of them are funny; others are worth reading for other reasons), that doesn’t mean expats are the only people I want to talk to. Or even the main group. I write for anyone who’ll laugh at my jokes, anyone who wants to know about living in Britain, anyone who wants to read about the oddities of living in a culture that isn’t your own. There aren’t enough people in those categories as it is, so why narrow things down? I know, I know: When you define your target audience you’re not limiting it. If you know where to find your audience, you can address it. Book publishing works on the same principle. You write a cover letter or book proposal and say, “This book will appeal to 36-year-olds who have never had a manicure and who didn’t wash their dishes yesterday.” Niche marketing holds that men don’t want to read about a woman protagonist, whites don’t want to read about blacks, adults don’t want to read about children, straight people don’t want to read about gays, etc. etc., ad fucking nauseum. To sum that up, dominant groups don’t want to read about non-dominant ones. It you’re in the non-dominant group, you’re niche. If you’re in the dominant group, you’re mainstream. Unless of course a niche book breaks out, at which point we all worship it. What am amazing writer to have done that. What wisdom. What a gift it is to be so deeply rooted in a vibrant culture. Do you spot just a touch of irony in that? [If this weren’t a numbered list I’d start a new paragraph here, so take a small breath.] I have yet to find the niche that makes me think I’ve found mine. Niche-ing makes sense in some situations: if you write about blogging; about food; about parenting, which is usually code for mothering; about travel; about books; about writing; about transgender issues; about hunting wild mushrooms in Maine; about politics or a given political outlook—about any established or sharply defined category. But some of us sprawl between categories. Some of us write in small categories and want to break out of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not focused—we may keep a tight focus on our awkward topic. But we don’t fit neatly into an established category, and I, at least, don’t want to narrow what I’m doing in order to fit.
  6. (And this is, really, the main issue) I don’t want my writing controlled by my efforts to game the search engines. Again, I have no quarrel with people who do. It works, and it’s a legitimate choice. To maximize my page views, I could, in theory, find out what people want to read and then write about it, repeating the key words in all the key places. I get a steady flow of people, for example, wanting to know why Great Britain is called Great Britain. They push my page views up and I like this because (a) it makes me feel good and (b) I’m hoping that when my next book starts making the rounds, the blog will convince a publisher to consider it with just a bit more respect, so my stats may have an impact on something of more use in the world than my silly damn ego. People also want photos of cats. And dogs. The appetite for them is endless. Should I be sitting at my computer, then, and wondering what else people want and how I could produce it? Possibly, but if I do, will I be able to keep my writing sharp enough to make it worth reading? To the extent that Notes works, it depends on me making myself laugh. That’s not an easy river to channel, and it dries up altogether when I give too much thought to what people think and whether I’m making them happy. Which leads to:
  7. The only reason I can keep this blog fed is because early on in the process of creating it I stopped giving a rip. I ignore much of what I learned about writing, and a good part of what, in turn, I taught. And if you were a student of mine, whatever I taught you I taught in good faith. We all change, and maybe I needed to learn it before I could set it aside. But I apologize anyway. What exactly am I ignoring? I haven’t checked in with the rules in my head long enough to be sure. These days, I pretty much let myself sit at the keyboard and riff. I can’t do that and worry about SEO. I won’t complain about people who do as long as they can do it with some subtlety, but it’s not going to work for me.
  8. If you read about SEO long enough, someone will tell you to think of yourself as a brand. I am not a brand. I’m a writer. I’m a cantankerous human being. I’m any number of other things, but I’m not a brand.
  9. I did say nine, didn’t I? I lied. It has a better resonance than eight. And I’m sure the search engines like it better.

What the world wants to know about Britain

If search engine terms are any measure of what people want to know about Britain, I’m full of insight. And that other stuff, but it’s not what we’re talking about right now. I’m disguising myself as a sensible bloggist, so behave please. We’re in public.

I keep a list of the search engine terms that lead people to Notes, and that list tells me everything I need in order to fake my way through a serious topic. So here we go, with Google’s lower-case style and lack of question marks carefully preserved where I quote directly. Somehow adding quotation marks seems—oh, I don’t know, un-search-engine-like, so I’ve left them out, even though things would be clearer if I added them.

Profanity

I had four searches about these: who swears more, us or uk (I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’ll depend on what you consider a swear word) and usa vs uk profanity. Both of these popped up twice, each worded the same way and in a short space of time, marking them as two repeat searches. What do we learn from this? That the people who are interested in swearing try repeat their searches and return to sites where they probably didn’t find an answer the first time.

Irrelevant photo: Chun Quoit in the fog. This is an ancient monument near Penzance. No one knows what it purpose was, but it looks a lot like a giant stone ironing board.

Irrelevant photo: Chun Quoit in the fog. This is an ancient monument near Penzance. No one knows what its purpose was, but it looks a lot like a giant stone ironing board.

Manners

On a vaguely related topic, I was on the receiving end of five searches about manners: british have nicer manners (than who?); manners and how they started (twice); american manners for brits (see next question); what about manners in the us (we don’t have any, so don’t worry about it). The idea of two polite Brits brushing up on American manners in advance of a trip is touching, in a sad sort of way. It’s thoughtful, it’s polite, and oh sweetheart, it is so not going to help.

Food

The world—and I’m exaggerating only slightly; it’s called the multiplier effect and it allows me to lie in good conscience—is obsessed with lemon drizzle cake. I have no idea why. I mean, it’s good, but I never heard of it before I moved to Britain so how did everyone else? I had three searches for recipes in cup measurements (those would be from Americans), and one asking for metric, one that just asked for and measurements, possibly of the ingredients, possibly of the resulting cake, and possibly of the person who ate it all in one sitting. Plus one wanting an easy american english recipe—presumably that’s one with the excess U’s left out because they’re fattening. I did write a post or two about this, but in trying to come up with a recipe in cup measures I screwed the whole thing up so I’m not going to link back to it, even though it’s the most important topic I’ve written about. Other searches wanted to know about english food, british food, food about england in short note (I am notably short, but I don’t think that’s what this is about), tea, and an american expat making chocolate chip cookies in England (which is cheating a bit since it’s not exactly about Britain but let’s include it anyway because that’s me; I made a batch last week, since I’m the proud hoarder of a new stash of chocolate chips).

Tourism

Tourism sites think we want to know about beaches, castles, and places to stay. Bullshit. Here’s what people want to know: do the british mind american tourists; american tourists hated; annoyed by tourists? Cornwall (the question mark, being in the middle, survived); why are british so mean to american tourists. So, with that level of paranoia, we can answer the next two questions: why so few american tourists (because they think no one likes them) and are americans in awe of Britain when they visit (they might be if they weren’t so busy worrying about whether anyone likes them and why they don’t). And three people wanted to know about emmits, which is a Cornish word for tourists, although not necessarily American ones. It’s not a compliment, so maybe those tourists and would-be tourists are onto something. And in a neat little irony, I just googled emmits notes from the uk to locate the link to the back post on emmits.

Accents and language

Three people want to know how to pronounce the Widemouth part of Widemouth Bay (Widmuth, to save you the search). No one wants to know how to pronounce anything else, although one asked about british place of interest or towns consonants missing. I don’t know what this obsession with Widemouth means. Maybe it’s the center of the universe, although you wouldn’t think so to drive through. Other searches are: talking in british english a sex (no, I don’t understand it either, but then I’m American so maybe I’m not supposed to); do the english have accents to the aussies (is a bear Catholic? does the Pope shit in the woods?); table british accent (this may have to do with food but it may have to do with parliamentary procedure, in which case it’s complicated because to table means different things in American and British usage); british accent are fascinating (yes, but not half as fascinating as Google searches); pure english word list (sorry, kid, but English isn’t a pure language). And finally, about the U.S., what do americans call cats (we call them cats, or sometimes kitty).

Music

The questions here were: raunchy folk songs british (sorry, most of my raunchy ones are American); british musical notation; why is british musical notation weird; british “folk music” strange accents. So, we’re interested in raunchy folk songs in funny accents written in weird notation. I’m so glad people aren’t judgmental about cultural differences.

Wigs

Lots of people want to know about lawyers and their wigs—their history, what lawyers think of them (they all, of course, feel the same way), whether they’re itchy, why lawyers wear silly wigs (no judgment there). Apparently if you know three things about Britain, one of them is that lawyers wear wigs. Another is that people eat lemon drizzle cake. The third? That a lot of weird things go on.

Neighbors

Someone typed in neighbor wants to know everyone’s business uk. I can’t help wondering if they had someone specific in mind. Another was interested in british dog village life and a third in british neighbors and a fourth in miss marple village. If that last one is about Miss Marple’s village, it’s worth knowing that she’s a fictional character, living in a made-up village, where 150% of the population has been murdered. Visiting isn’t recommended. Or, strictly speaking, possible.

Intercultural explorations

These were: what caused strange british traditions (sunspots) and why do english use chocolate eggs not hens’ to celebrate easter (the British have developed chocolate hens and those are their eggs, thank you very much). Don’t you feel better knowing that people are still out there wanting to learn about other cultures?

Other stuff

One person wanted to know about british schoolgirls in uniform and wanted to know it three times. He (and yes, I’m making assumptions; wanna bet I’m right?) didn’t find any photos here but kept coming back anyway. Don’t think about it too much, because it’ll only upset you. Three wanted to know about Mrs. Baggit, including one who wanted to know where to buy a Mrs. Baggit sign. One wanted to know how to break into a british phone boxed. Yes, boxed. It should be easy, since the doors don’t lock—all you have to do is pull. Phone boxes are made that way—the phone company wants you to come in. Or used to when they could still make money on them. The hard part these days is finding one. Maybe the real question was how to break into the money boxes inside them, in which case save your energy, because they’ll be empty.

Someone asked about jack rusel parkins, which baffles me since a jack russell is a dog and a parkin is a kind of cake. Google jack russell parkins, though, and you’ll end up with links to sites about the parson jack russell, which is a specific kind of jack russell.

Someone else seems to have mistaken Google for email and wrote “perhaps you would like to come for lunch or afternoon tea on a s…” It struck me as so forlorn that I’d have gone if I’d known who wrote it. If they weren’t too far away. And if—well, never mind. It’s not going to happen. But I did put quotation marks around the invitation to buffer it from this harsh world.

Other people wanted to know: who funds cornwall gay pride (Moscow); what a crooked stile is; why I (or some vague set of someones) think Britain is called great (in case you’re keeping track, I capitalized that because it’s paraphrased, but what I or whoever thinks is pretty much irrelevant to even a semi-serious answer); the metric system in great britain; winter in cornwall; british sex scandal blog spot; and she steps on snails (oh, indeed she does).

And earning its own paragraph for its sheer oddity, someone was looking for uk bkhgum pales gurd xxx. And landed here, with his or her head still spinning from the ride.

A final searcher was looking for notes from the uk. And found it. Which sounds like the ending to a kid’s picture book.