Immigration, body language, and the apostrophe

A few weeks ago, I had one of those moments that remind me how immigrantish I am, even after eleven years in Britain. I mention it because so many anti-immigrant complaints come down to this: Immigrants too immigrantish. Why can’t they just be like us?

Mind you, I don’t think everybody staying in the cultural boxes they were born to is a recipe for universal happiness, let alone world peace. But those immigrantish moment do remind me why people who live in cultures they didn’t grow up in don’t instantly blend into the new one.

What happened was this: My singing buddy, G., and I were working on a song and decided we’d sing the chorus twice because it’s short and In the kind of music we sing joining in on the chorus is eleven tenths of the fun. So, we figured, let’s give ‘em more chorus.

Then managed to forgot how many times we’d sung it. So, clever me, I thought I’d keep count on my fingers: index finger, one time through; index and middle finger, twice through and time to move on.

By the time I realized what I’d done, I was laughing too hard to sing.

If you’re not British, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Holding up two fingers (if the palm’s facing the owner of the fingers) is right up there with flipping someone the bird. Or is flipping the bird only understood in the U.S.? It’s right up there with holding your middle finger in the air, all by its lonesome. If I’m still basing myself too heavily in the insults and explanations of my native culture, let’s try this: It’s a serious insult.

A photo that would’ve been relevant to last week’s post: This is the National Trust/Cadbury poster promoting their egg hunts. You’ll notice that for all the complaints about Easter being airbrushed out, the first line that the eye picks up uses the word.

I’ve lived in the U.K. long enough to know that, but my nerves and muscles haven’t. They’re stubbornly American. On the instinctive level, which is where they do their work, two fingers are just two fingers. If I want to order two teas and there’s some confusion about how many I asked for? May all the gods I don’t believe in protect me, those are the fingers I’d be most likely to hold up. It’s long-distance communication. Communication that carries over the noise of a cafe.

It’s also a good way to very seriously insult someone.

But that’s the thing about nerves and muscles. They work faster than the brain. Faster than the thought, You’re in a country where you don’t count on your fingers that way.

So that’s one reason immigrants are so stubbornly immigrantish: Unless you move to a new country when you’re young, some parts of you just don’t change. Even if you set out to adapt your habits, one by one by one, as I haven’t, there’s always something left.

How do people count on their fingers here? I have no idea. In some countries, I’ve been told, you start with the thumb. Two coffees? That’s the thumb and index finger. Hold up the thumb and middle finger and you’re likely to end up with three coffees.  But in Britain? I can’t remember anyone waving fingers around to let someone else know how many teas or coffees or beers they want. For all I know, it’s an un-British way to communicate.

D. swears that if a doctor asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” it will always be three. I don’t remember the reason it won’t be one, but she says they’ll be afraid to hold up two and are too lazy to hold up four or five.

Why is sticking two fingers up an insult? No one seems to know. The usual story has to do with the Battle of Agincourt, which was won by English archers and the longbow. The English are still sticking two fingers in the air to show the French they haven’t lost the ones that matter to an archer. Unfortunately, every place I found it explained that way also said it probably wasn’t true.

But if you hear about me getting into a brawl somewhere, it’ll be because it was noisy and I was trying to ask for two of something.


From body language, let’s move to the written language. My relocated friend J. pointed me in the direction of this story;

A vigilante has been roving night-time Bristol for thirteen years now, correcting the apostrophes in signs. Yes, friends, someone has dedicated his life to that, and the BBC interviewed him early in April.

Is what he’s doing illegal? “It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place,” he said. And although proofing your own writing is a losing battle (I’ll quote on that anytime I have to explain a typo on the blog), I’ve proofed that quote three times to make sure the apostrophe was in the right spot.

The interview led a newspaper columnist, Catherine Bennett, to point out that he’s not the grammar vigilante he claims (somewhere; I’m not sure where) to be, because grammar’s one thing and punctuation’s another. And that’s a powerful argument for not claiming to be an expert on anything: Sooner or later you’ll get something wrong and someone else will find it. And point a finger at you and feel clever about it. That someone may not be an expert themselves, but it takes a whole lot less expertise to find one mistake than it does never to make any.

All this led me to learn that chain stores are dropping their apostrophes all over Britain’s high streets. So far, no pedestrian casualties have been reported.

If you’re in the American Midwest, the high street is the equivalent of Main Street. If you’re anywhere in the U.S. except New York, it’s the equivalent of downtown. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to muddle through without a translation. Waterstones—the bookstore chain that was once the bad guy in literary circles because it was forcing out independent bookstores but has become the good guy because it’s at least a real bookstore, not Amazon or something else on the internet—has dropped its apostrophe because that works better online. Barclays, Marks and Spencer, and a few others have done the same.

If you want more examples, the comment on this story has more of them than the story itself, which is pretty minimal.

In the U.S., place names are apostropheless because the U.S. Post Office doesn’t believe in them. Harpers Ferry comes to mind. If apostrophes are clothing, Harpers Ferry runs around stark naked.

In Britain, the rule on place names seems to be, Do anything you damn well please. Earl’s Court has an apostrophe if it’s the tube station but not if it’s the event venue, which is Earls Court. (Sorry, event venue is a ridiculous phrase but its the description I found and it knocked any real language out of my brain) On the other hand, the Barons Court tube station has no apostrophe. I could go on, but enough.

The Bristol vigilante will never be out of work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay.