What the world really wants to know about Britain, part sevenish

What leads (a few) wide-eyed innocents from all over the internet to Notes from the U.K.? Let’s look at the search questions they ask–and let’s pretend it tells us something about what they want to know about Britain.

We’ll start with the strange ones, for a change, instead of saving them for dessert.

Strange questions

“why is everyone wearing pineapples”

I, my friends, am not wearing pineapples. Not as I type this and not when I read the question. That convinces me that not everyone is wearing pineapples. I don’t think I ever have worn pineapples, although there was a stretch of time when I wasn’t responsible for what I wore—or even for remembering it. But my mother wasn’t a pineapple kind of parent. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dress me in any. If this is really important to anyone, I can ask if my older brother remembers any pineapple-related clothing events–his memory kicks in a few years earlier than mine–but I’m hoping you’ll take my word on this, because it’s not going to be easy to explain why I’m asking.

And to be completely clear, it doesn’t matter if the question is about clothing with pictures of pineapples, the fruit itself (sliced or whole; canned, fresh, or dried), or three-dimensional imitations of the fruit. I am not now wearing nor have I ever worn any of them.

Why did the comment lead someone to me? Because one of my posts, “Banning Pineapples,” mentioned that a couple of music festivals had banned them, along with hand grenades and land mines. You can understand why they’re all in the same category, right?

As an article on the BBC website explained (and it’s bizarre enough that it bears repetition), “Organisers said [the ban] was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

No, I don’t understand it either. Especially the pork soda part. But nothing I wrote mentioned anyone dressing in or as a pineapple. Pineapples are not in my head. And what kind of world do we live in that people don’t make a distinction between wearing pictures of pineapples and decking themselves out in dripping slices of the canned stuff?

A very strange world, that’s what we live in. It must be time for an irrelevant photo, and then another question.

Blatantly irrelevant photo: begonia flowers

“coke fabric yard”

I not only don’t understand this question, I can’t account for it leading anyone to Notes. As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about either coke or Coke. Yard? Yes, I have mentioned yards, probably in the context of metric and non-metric measures. Fabric? In the U.S, it’s measured by the yard, so I might’ve used that word too. Plus I do tend to call that piece of ground outside a house a yard. I probably said something about ours. The British call it a garden. Even—I think—if it’s cemented over.

Coke, though? I can think of three meanings of the word, and none are measured by the yard. You might as well toss pineapples into the conversation.

Surely thousands of other people on the internet have mentioned the word yard. How deep into a Google search would you have to go before you landed here?

Well, because I take the responsibility of blogging seriously, I checked. It turns out that you can buy Coke fabric—that’s fabric with pictures of Coke (cans of, or maybe bottles, but not spills or glasses), and the first couple of search pages were all about how to buy some. So if someone wanted to buy Coke fabric by the yard, they didn’t have to go very deep into the listings–it’s all at the top. But they went past all that, so I kept going as well. And it all got strange by the second or third page. I found:

Christ to Coke: How an Image Becomes an Icon. When I followed the link, I landed midway into the thing and found a mention of fabric and a picture of the American flag. No Coke, no Christ, no idea what it’s all about. Best guess? It’s somebody’s PhD thesis and it’s all very, very deep. Too deep for the likes of us, so let’s move on.

Next came The Dangers of Kissing and Diet Coke: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know. This leads to a book that opens by saying, “I bet you bought this book because you wonder what’s dangerous about kissing and Diet Coke.”

Well, no. I didn’t pay a damn dime and wouldn’t have. And when the author didn’t get around to either kissing or Diet Coke within the first few paragraphs, I figured it was clickbait and bullshit and I moved on to The Pollution Abatement Handbook, which mentioned both coke (a fuel used in making steel) and fabric filters to minimize emissions.

Below that I found The Reports of Sir Edward Coke KNT (1572-1617), in Thirteen Parts, which not only gives us one of the keywords in the author’s name but somewhere along the line mentions a church-yard, and that hyphen make sit look like the word yard is running around loose. No fabric. Sorry.

“KNT” may be an abbreviation of knight, but might also be a hint that the gentleman was knit. Or–as I’d have put it–knitted (or is that knot, or possibly knut?), but both spelling a grammar were different back then. I think I like it best when I’m not sure, so I didn’t try to find out anything about him.

After that came a story about cocaine being found in a Coke factory in France, which is appropriate, then one about what it’s “really” like to smuggle cocaine. Then we were back to Coke fabric.

Then I gave up.

“what does ‘feeding the bears’ mean when it comes to classroom instructional design”

Um. Gee. I have no idea. I googled it but the responses were about feeding actual bears. Or not feeding actual bears, which for most of us seems like a good idea.

The exception was the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as getting a traffic ticket. It had a second definition, but it was even less useful. I have as little understanding of how the search led to me as I do of the definition the writer was looking for.


Questions about Britain’s greatness

As always, people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. Or sometimes when it was first called Great Britain. Or—from the gullible—why Britain’s great. This version of the question comes from people who think the jumbo burger has to be big in some absolute way when in fact it could easily be bigger than a micro-size regular burger.

Great Britain is—as I say every time I write one of these posts—a geographical term. It means big.

When I slotted the question into Google, I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to work my way through pollution handbooks. Notes was close to the top of the list. Of course, Google feeds you what it thinks you want and confirms whatever prejudices it thinks you have. Still, you take your triumphs where you can find them.

If you want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain, it’s here.

I have yet to write about when Great Britain was first called that or why Britain’s called Britain, but a shallow splash in the Google pond tells me that Britain comes from the Latin Britannia, which dropped out of use when the Romans left Britain and came back into use when the Normans shot an arrow into the eye of the king of the moment and put themselves in charge, so they got to call it whatever they wanted.

I still don’t know why the Romans called it Britannia, but let’s not dive down that rabbit hole right now.

In the meantime, if you think words will make a country great, I refer you to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Full disclosure: Some versions of the quote use “cannot” instead of “can’t,” and one link claims he never said it at all. But, as Yogi Berra (is alleged to have) said, “I never said half the things I said.” So let’s not quibble.

And by way of full disclosure, I can fool myself perfectly well, so you don’t have to bother.

For the sake of variety, someone asked, “why great Britain.” This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine, “Why a duck?” But really, why not a duck? And why not Great Britain? But all this threatens to involve us in some pretty deep thought and it’s too much for a Friday morning. We’ll leave it.


Knowledgeable questions


You have to know something about Cornwall to ask about this. It’s a Cornish word for incomers, and also for tourists, who swarm all over the landscape like ants, which is the word’s literal meaning.

When I googled emmits, I popped up at the top of the list, which is (again) meaningless since Google’s feeding me what it thinks I want to see and it knows how vain I am.

The word is also spelled emmets, and since that’s not the spelling I used, I drop out of the running if I put the word in that way. I should probably have gone with the e spelling. It seems to be more common.

What are people really trying to find out when they google this? If they’re emmits (or emmets), maybe only a definition, but maybe what the Cornish think of them. Since I’m not Cornish and came here four generations too late to ever be, you shouldn’t look to me for an answer.

“what is a cockwomble”

I’m not at the top of the list here, but in the narrow field of cockwomble experts I do at least register. I’m so proud. And proud of all the strange people who know enough to ask what a cockwomble is. What information I have is here.


Repeat questions        

Every time we do this, people want to know about:

Why British lawyers wear [fill in the blank with a disparaging adjective] wigs in court. Recently they’ve also been asking about court wigs.

Answer: It keeps their heads warm.

Oh, hell, I suppose I should include a link. Actual information is here.

Beer. This is usually—getting right to the point—about which country’s beer has more alcohol. Honestly, who cares? If you’re worried about getting drunk on minimal volume, try vodka. Or gin or tequila. Hell, it you can go for stuff that comes in colors too if you like.

How the English (or British) feel about (or treat) American tourists. A recent version of this read “british snooty to american tourists.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly (to do this, you pour off the SEO and interpret the patterns left behind), this should really have its own category: Paranoia. The writers are wondering whether it’s safe to take their delicate little selves out of the United States and whether the British will be mean to them. Take the risk, folks. It can’t possibly be as bad as junior high school.

Unless you were the people who made junior high so horrible.

“Tea on the Lawn.” It took me a while to figure this out, but these questions turn out to be about a poem that must be assigned to half the schoolkids in Britain, and they’re all out there looking for a quick way to get their bored little heads around it—possibly without having to read the damn thing. A recent query was looking for a summary. Read the poem, kid. It’ll be shorter than the summary.

The post that draws these poor souls was about a fund-raising tea on the lawn of a great house near where I live. It’s a very British thing, that kind of tea, and as a rule it doesn’t involve poetry.


New questions

how to act like an aristocrat Mostly, as I write this drivel, I don’t think about SEO—search engine optimization, or how to game the googlemonster—but when I wrote the headline that drew the poor silly soul behind the question into my lair, I did wonder if someone wouldn’t google the phrase. And someone did, confirming my worst suppositions about human nature.

“romance, marriage, village life” I have no idea what someone expected to find, but when I google it, my post on gay marriage, romance, and village life shows up. It’s probably not what the person was looking for, but it involves all three words. A triumph.

“US mail box UK”

What can I say? Name a topic and someone out there is interested in it.

“a bit about Britain”

There’s a blog by that name, and several of its posts turn up in a Google search. A post of mine shows up at the bottom of the page, after the ones that were a closer fit, and the questioner continued down that far, leading me to conclude that some people have too much time on their hands.



Questions about pronunciation usually ask about place names, but not long ago someone wanted “pronunciation of whoo.”

This is awkward. The English language is such a mess. I edited kids’ nonfiction (briefly, which is too bad because it was great fun), and one of the things I had to do was create a vocabulary list for each book, with not just definitions but also pronunciations. Real linguists use a set of symbols that only they can understand. If you know the code, they’ll tell you how a word’s pronounced, but our lists had to use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and make sense to the average ten-year-old.

It tells you something about the language that we need a set of symbols the average English speaker can’t read to tell us what our words sound like. But never mind them. I couldn’t use them–both because I don’t understand them and because they wouldn’t do what we needed done.

So: English pronunciation with 26 letters. Have you ever tried writing the pronunciation of an English word? Name me a vowel (we’ll leave the consonants alone; they’re not as much of a mess) that doesn’t have three pronunciations for every whim that crosses its flitty little mind. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten avoids the whole problem by finding a word or phrase that each Yiddish word rhymes with. It works perfectly, but there must’ve been moments when he pounded his head against a wall.

So how do you pronounce whoo? Whoo. That’s  sort of like woo, but with a bit of air on the H, but that’s too long winded for a vocabulary list. It rhymes with few, but then so does woo, so that’s no damn help.

I’m happy to say, it never came up in the kids’ books.

“what do british call brownies”

Brownies. Aren’t you glad you asked? Mind you, British brownies aren’t always what I’d call brownies, because they’ll accept anything that’s baked, oblong, and vaguely chocolaty, but I’ve had some American brownies that I could describe the same way.

Semi-relevantly, the British tend to go over the top with their brownies, presumably because brownies are American and that’s what they think Americans do. So you can see a perfectly innocent brownie in a café’s display case, order it, and find that it comes to your table under a wedding gown’s worth of whipped cream embroidered with chocolate sauce. Plus, in the name of health and safety, a tiny marzipan stethoscope.

A question of my own and a bit about SEO

Before I end, I should make an opening, once again, for you to tell me what you’d like to know about Britain. Or the U.S. Or any other topic I might be unqualified to write about. I don’t promise to tackle it. That depends on whether I can be marginally informative while still amusing myself–and, with luck, you. But I will try.

And the bit about SEO? I just read that the Google searches beginning with “how to” are up more than 140% since 2004. (Sorry, I can’t give you link to prove I didn’t make this up. It was a very small item in the Guardian, and when I searched for it online, the matches were at least as bizarre as the stuff I’ve quoted above. Maybe it didn’t go into the online edition.)

The most popular searches include:

  • How to tie a tie (get someone to do it for you once, slip it off without unknotting it, and never own more than that one tie; when it gets dirty, twist it around to the back shows instead of the front)
  • How to kiss (put four lips together and see where things take you)
  • How to make money (don’t listen to anyone who charges for an answer)
  • How to write a cover letter (badly if the ones I’ve seen are typical)
  • How to make french toast (French toast? Excuse me, but I’m not answering that. It throws me so far off course that I’ve changed the structure of my answers by adding caps and periods and all that sentence-ending stuff. How’s that for intense? So let me ask a few questions of my own: Why not mashed potatoes? Why not pieroshki? In what culture is this a basic life skill?)

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

How people find a blog, part 2. Or 3.

What does the world really want to know about Britain? For the second (or possibly third; I’ve lost track) time, I’ll tell you. And how do I know? you ask (if you have any sense). I track the questions that lead people here, and this is an entirely scientific and reliable system because search engines are entirely reliable and the internet is a place of complete sobriety and good sense.

Semi-relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who gets a mention below.

Semi-relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who gets a mention below.

People have asked about:


Why Britain is called Great Britain. This is the most commonly asked question and it comes in assorted forms and with an interesting misspelling or three thrown in to keep me amused. It’s also one of the questions I actually answered.

The Silly Isles in Britain. This search is so logical and so wrong. Give the writer credit for knowing how the islands are pronounced, then get out your red pen and write “Scilly Isles.”

Do Brits still like American tourists? I’m not sure. Did they ever? Maybe not, because people also want to know Why Brits hate American tourists, Not to mention Do Brits see Americans as naughty children? and (irrelevantly) Why do Americans love the British? None of this is exactly geography, but I’m assuming the writers are thinking of traveling. Close enough. And really, folks, the answer to all of this is that there is no single answer. The British haven’t achieved a unanimous opinion on this. I’m tempted to add “or on anything else,” but that’s just wise-assing around. They have a consensus and maybe even unanimity on the weather and on baked beans.


Gloucester cheese rolling. I’m glad to see it getting some recognition. This is a deep and resonant part of British culture. It must be, because I can’t think of any other way to explain it. Someone was also looking for British culture celebrations, although it’s hard to know if they wanted deep-rooted folk traditions (in which case see not just Gloucester but also the flaming tar barrels) or high culture, in which case go elsewhere because I’m useless.

(A note about why I’m providing links on some topics and not on others: Some posts are easy enough for me to dig out. Others are buried somewhere in this morass, and as people here say with such style, I can’t be arsed.)

American and British manners. That’s easy: We (that’s Americans) have none; they (that’s the British) have lots. I’ll group this with American and British dinner manners TekeT. What does TekeT mean? For all I know, it’s some obscure element of British dinner-table manners that I haven’t picked up on and, oh, how I’ve been offending people. Or the cat walked across the keyboard. But what I really want to know is how the writer got two capital letters past Google’s No Caps filter, because those capital Ts are from the actual search question. And no, it’s not really a question, but let’s move on. For no particular reason, I’ve added caps into the questions in this post, except for those two Ts. But to answer briefly, British eating is knife right, fork left and how you hold the fork indicates your class. What should a foreigner do? Dive for cover, because whatever impression you want to leave people with—except the impression that you’re an outsider—you won’t get it right. Americans, on the other hand, juggle the tableware from one hand to the other. Not the plates, though. Or the glasses. Sorry. Just the fork and knife. What should be done to show good manners in Britain? I had a burst of these, possibly from some single person who didn’t find an answer but kept coming back, and possibly from the misdirected half of a class whose teacher assigned the question. It’s an interesting concept. I always thought of good manners as something you have—you know, the way you have a dime or a stomach ache or black hair. But this is about showing them, the way you show a bus pass. If I ever figure out the answer or why the difference is significant, I’ll write a post.

Poster showing difference between city life and village life (maxi…). I’m guessing that “maxi…” is a word limit that got cut off, although how a word limit applies to a poster I don’t know. But whatever the word limit is, kid, go do your own homework.

American swearing vs. British swearing. Ah, now this is important. Sadly, I don’t feel I can do justice to the British side of the topic. Maybe we could explore it as a community. If we put all our twisted little minds together we’ll learn something interesting. As for me, I swear in American and if you’ll forgive me for bragging, I’m not bad at it. Still, I don’t want to monopolize that side of the conversation, so I welcome all contributions, British, American, and other. I’ll open by saying that Americans don’t use bloody as a swearword and—if you’ll forgive a generalization—aren’t sure if it’s a mild one or a strong one. Who’s next?

The British and their pets. They have them. They love them. (Sorry—more generalizations. When you write about a culture as if it was all one thing, that happens.) If you want to start a conversation, look for someone with a dog and ask about it. Or talk to the dog. The person may answer.

New subsection, same topic:

Why are these stupid wigs worn in court? This came from a lawyer or judge. Notice that phrase “these stupid wigs.” The writer has one in hand. Or on head. And is not happy about it. I sympathize. I got several versions of the question. Most included the word stupid, one was about judges’ wigs, one was about lawyers’ wigs, and one was about ill-fitting wigs.

What has happened to Mrs. Baggit signs? Ah, nothing goes to the heart of British culture like a judge’s wig or a Mrs. Baggit sign. They read (and that read can be read as either present tense or past; take your pick), “Mrs. Baggit says, ‘Keep Britain tidy.’ ” But to answer the question, I have no idea. They are (or if they’ve all disappeared, were) so obnoxiously fussy that I just loved them. In a twisted sort of way. If they’d been in the American countryside, they’d have been used for target practice. Or they’d be decorating the walls of some teenage bedrooms.

Do bearskin hats grow? No. Once the bear’s dead, the hat can’t grow.

Neutral accent different from British accent if migrating to UK. There is no such thing as neutral accent, my friend. Every accent’s an accent. Even yours. Even the one you teach yourself in order not to sound like yourself.

British pub archive quizzes. Sorry, if an archive exists, you won’t find here. I hate quizzes. Go make up your own.

Who are the emmits? If you’re asking, sorry, dear, but you are. And so am I.

Tutting in U.K. This also goes to the heart of British culture. Probably even more than the Mrs. Baggit signs, the wigs, and the baked beans. Since I’m not only an emmit but a foreigner, I can’t give a tutorial on either tutting or being tutted. All I can tell you is that if you’ve been tutted, you broke one of the culture’s unwritten rules. And the laws of probability state that it was probably about standing in line—or queuing, as the British say. It’s the national religion and if you sin you will be tutted.

Brit TV. Yes, they have it here. Some of it is good. Some of it isn’t. And some of it is the Chelsea flower show. Or Springwatch—an hour a day for an entire week on wildlife in spring. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your taste in TV.

Crime in Britain. They have that too. Possibly even at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flying the flag, U.S. & U.K. They tend to do it less here. I’m guessing they already know what country they’re in. In the U.S., we have to reassure ourselves about that.


Scheme to compliment Dorset cream 68. Does it have to be a scheme? Can’t you just come out and tell it it’s wonderful? But before you compliment the Devon stuff, you should at least check out Cornish cream. They’re exactly the same (as far as this emmit can tell), but in bitter competition. But about that “68”: It worries me. If it’s a year, the cream will have gone bad by now.

Toffee sticky pudding recipe. (Also sticky toffee pudding recipe.) A few people knows what matters in life.

Must eat sprouts during Christmas in U.K. I had a burst of questions about brussels sprouts and then silence—maybe because the season was over. They’ll be back next year.

Why English beer tastes like American beer. Dunno. I always heard that it didn’t.

British garlic cheese. I haven’t seen any anywhere. On the other hand, I haven’t been looking. It doesn’t taste like American beer, though.

Scones with jam in the middle. You put the jam in the middle after you bake them. Scones are like toast that way—a do-it-yourself operation. The only time I can remember seeing them pre-jammed is at village events, probably to keep anyone from taking too much. Or (to put a kinder interpretation on it) because it’s faster and less messy .

Lemon drizzle cake using cup measurements. Every time I review the searches that lead people here, someone—and usually several someones—is (or are, take your pick since we’re working with both the singular and the plural) asking for a lemon drizzle recipe using cup measurements. Sadly, I completely bungled the one I posted. Will the shame never end?

A nice cup of tea analysis. Is that Freudian or chemical? Did someone spill tea on the couch? What does it all mean, doctor? Who wrote on making tea? Um, lots of people. Including me. Which goes to show you that it doesn’t take an expert. As far as I know (and that’s not far), Freud had nothing to say on the subject.


The difference between US and UK bureaucracies. What a strange world. Someone actually asked that and more or less found an answer, although I wouldn’t offer it as a definitive one.

UK headline style. That came from someone with the mind of a copy editor, only instead of going to an authoritative source (as any good copy editor would) he or she cast his or her (this gets silly very quickly, doesn’t it?) self at the mercy of Google and the internet and just look where he or she landed. In a blog written by someone who wants to use they as the generic pronoun but hesitates to do it in a sentence about copy editing even though she (that’s me—or I, if you like) does (or do) it elsewhere. Oh, stop. Even I lost my way in that mess, and I once knew what I was trying to say. Anyway, I don’t know what the official style guide is over here. I’m retired and even if I weren’t I doubt I could adjust well enough to edit in British. But having worked as an editor and copy editor in the U.S., I can insist on finding some authoritative source, which is to say NOT THIS BLOG.

Season’s greetings. I’m afraid it’s a bit late for the holidays. This seems to be an email that someone typed into the search box. I had no way to let the sender know it went astray. I feel bad about this one.


I had a bunch of questions about naming storms in the UK and in Ireland, maybe because that was in the news for a while. The topic’s dropped out of the news and so have the questions, but storm Jacob was pounding us on Wednesday morning, when I started writing this. One of the dogs got blown over on the way to the store. Not that the winds were apocalyptic. He’s the pup—the silly one you’ll find in the photos here—and he was off balance anyway. But it was wild out there. I got them home just before it started hailing.

Not about Britain but too good to leave out:

Could a bat have flown into a high shelf for shoes in my closet? Yes, I’m pretty sure it could have. Did it? Well, it didn’t take the train, so if you found one there I’d say the answer’s yes. Are the shoes relevant to your question? Probably not, but they’re interesting. It never crossed my mind to put shoes on a high shelf. At my house, they go on the floor, where my feet spend their time. That’s either logical or unimaginative. Or maybe it’s just because I’m short.

American greeting rituals. Mostly we just say “hi,” but occasionally we tear off our clothes and run three circles around the nearest piece of furniture while waving feathers. Then put our clothes back on and act as if nothing happened. But that’s only with people we know well. As a casual visitor, you’re not likely to witness it or have to take part.

Sex scandal American. What, was there only one?

Americans commenting on your U.K. accent. Ah, yes, they will. But they’ll love it. Even if they make fun of it, somewhere in there they’ll believe it’s the most sophisticated accent on earth.

The cutest kitten in the universe. That would be mine. Just ask him. But he’s almost a cat now. He’s still cute, but he’s lost that kitten factor. Very sad.

All-time strangest search:

Veri veri sepr sex. I’m reasonably sure that’s not Latin for I had super sex last night and want to tell someone I don’t know all about it. But I never studied Latin, so don’t take my word for it.

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.


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.


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.


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 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).


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.


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.


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.