What the world wants to know about Britain, part sixish

The search questions that lead people to Notes have been killingly dull lately, but I did find a few with some spark. So let’s visit to the minds of those good folks who, day after day, search the internet for answers to life’s most improbable questions.


A search asked about “british places ignored syllables.” Well, silly me. I thought it was people who ignored the syllables, not the places. But no. The way it works is that Derby gets bored with being Derby after a century or ten and decides to be Darby. But all those road signs are already in place, and do you have any idea how expensive they are? So the spelling stays Derby but now we all have to say Darby or we’ll piss the place off.

And Woolfardisworthy? It can’t be bothered to mumble anything longer than “Woolsery” these days. It’s old. It’s tired. Show some respect, people: Call it Woolsery.

C’mon, that’s at least as sensible an explanation as the truth. If you want something marginally more sensible, try looking here.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what this is. Other than a flower, of course.

A related search read, “pronunciation of geography.”

Ooh, I know the answer to that. It’s pronounced almost the way it’s spelled, which makes it unusual in our language: gee-OGG-ruh-fee.

Someone asked, “what would be the british dialect for ‘tube of toothpaste.’ ”

Um. that would be “tube of toothpaste.”

I can’t comment on how well or awkwardly English dialects other than American match up with British, but I can tell you this: If you’re American, you’ll get by as long as you stick to dental hygiene. It’s when you get to clothing and the casual words for a few significant body parts that you should start worrying.

Someone wanted to know about the pronunciation of the Stone of Scone. Here’s what you need to know: The thing you eat rhymes with either cone or con, and which one you rhyme it with depends on where you live, where you grew up, what color your hair is, whether you’re wearing earrings today, what class you belong to or want people to think you belong to, and a variety of other factors too complicated for a mere foreigner (and remember, I am one) to understand. The Stone of Scone, though, is not edible and I wrote about it once already, so I’m going to hide behind myself and refer anyone who’s interested to my earlier post.

I’m not actually going through my search questions so I can refer you back to earlier posts. Blogging experts tell us to find excuses to do that because it bumps up your stats (translation: makes it look like you have more readers), but I check my search questions and write about them because they’re absurd. And what’s life without absurdity? Linking to earlier posts keeps me from boring either myself or those of you strange enough to have stuck around here for a while.

Someone wanted to know the British name for the semibreve. It’s the semibreve.

Since I’m reduced to helpless giggles anytime I’m around someone British discussing musical notes, I thought I’d better check with with Dr. Google before I went any further. Dr. G. says a semibreve is “a note having the time value of two minims or four crotchets, represented by a ring with no stem. It is the longest note now in common use.”

Sorry. It’s not just the names, although I find them hysterical. It’s the act of defining something incomprehensible by comparing it to something equally incomprehensible–something you’d only understand if you didn’t need to ask the meaning of the first word–that finishes me off.

But to go back to the question: It’s the Americans who call the semibreve something else—a whole note.

What’s a full breve? An antiquated note with the value of what I learned to call two whole notes.

Google, as it so often does, offered to translate semibreve into French. It’s semibreve. (Somehow or other, I left it set to French, but it has a whole list of languages it can mangle a word into.) The semibreve is also a semibreve in Spanish. No translation is available for Amharic, but in Russian it’s целая нота. Which, even though my Russian’s minimal at best, I understand better than “semibreve,” because if you take the words apart it translates to English as whole note.

Excuse me for a few minutes. I’m going to hide in the corner and giggle helplessly while I repeat “minim,” “crotchet,” and “quaver.” Why don’t you go ahead and read about wigs until I pull myself together?


As always, a bunch of people asked about wigs: “why british lawyers still wear those wigs in court” is typical enough to stand in for almost all of them. Short answer? Because they have to. They’re bald. Men, women, and everyone in between—even the very few dogs who passed the bar exam. Every last one of them is bald. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Another query asked, “what do british lawyers wear to court.” (Almost no search question arrives with a question mark in tow. Or a capital letter. No one can be bothered using a question mark or a cap these days. They know they can get away without them so they don’t even pretend to make an effort. The ox cart of civilization, my friends, is rattling itself into little pieces on the bumpy roads of modern communication.)

Where were we. (See? No question mark. I tell you. Kids these days!) What British lawyers wear to court—other than wigs, of course. Why, swimwear. The men wear budgie smugglers, the women wear two-pieces, and the dogs wear water wings. Any lawyer who doesn’t fall into one of those basic categories can mix and match any old which way.

You’d think people would know these things by now.

The judges wear robes (no, not the bath type; the Harry Potter type) and haven’t been able to stop laughing since the new rules were introduced. They don’t find quavers and crotchets amusing, they don’t crack a smile at the wigs, but the swimwear? They’ve lost all dignity over it.

Someone else wanted to know if British solicitors wear wigs in court. I’m fairly sure the answer’s no, because solicitors are responsible for the out-of-court half of the lawyer business. It’s the barristers who appear in court.

Since the topic of wigs comes up so often, I guess it’s time to say that Britain makes an odd connection between the law and funny headgear. I mean, can we forget the wigs for a minute? Have you looked at the hats cops wear? The strategy, I think, is to disable the criminals (or villains, as they—yes, really—say here). Have you ever tried to start a football riot when you’re doubled over laughing?

Another question was about British legal wigs, and it’s a relief not to have to write about the illegal ones, because sooner or later, you know, we were going to get caught.

Okay, I’m faking my way through this. I don’t know anything about the legal wigs. Dangerous as it was, I was on firmer ground when we were out there on the edge with the illegal ones, so let’s move on, okay?


Someone asked about “tutting in a queue.” This is a well-informed search question. The writer knows what tutting is: the almost inaudible sound of someone British disapproving (violently, in their opinion) of whatever you just did. If you were raised to know the power of a tut, you will crumble to dust when tutted. It’s the modern version of banishment or outlawing. It shoves you—the tuttee—outside of the human community, where you will no longer receive friendship, sympathy, or the protection of law.

And if you weren’t raised to know its power? You’ll never know it happened.

So that’s the what, now let’s get to the rest of the question. A queue is what Americans call a line, and the British create one in all situations involving more than one person: Then they wait their turn, without shoving, elbowing, or behaving badly.

So what happens if you find two people waiting (in a queue) for a bus and you stand off to one side till the bus comes and then get on first? You will be tutted within an inch of your life. And while you’re busy pushing your way in, the two people will still be in their line—you didn’t expect them to step out of it, did you?—so the tutting will be from the queue if not exactly in the queue.

That was the search question, remember: “tutting in a queue.”

It gets messy, wandering onto the shaky ground where prepositions build their homes. You know prepositions, right? Anything you can do with a cloud—be in it, on it, with it, of it, around it, near it. They’ve got to be one of the messiest elements of any language, because either they follow no logic or they follow a different logic in each language.

A few of quick examples: 1, Are you on a chair or in a chair? It depends on the language you’re sitting in. 2, The Yiddish-speaking immigrant garment workers in New York bequeathed to my generation a sentence that made, I’m sure, perfect sense in Yiddish: I work by buttons. I’m seventy and still haven’t quite figured it out. 3, Look up the overlapping (to an English speaker) meanings of the Spanish por and para and you’ll get a sense of why prepositions are one of the things a second-language speaker consistently mangles.

But back to our search question. If the tutter is in the queue, can we also say that the tut in the queue? Or is it the act of tutting that’s in the queue? Actually, can anything as insubstantial as a tut be in anything physical?

Well, yes. A room.

I’m going to stop before I combust. The best I can do is leave you with those questions to ruin your weekend, because I’m moving on.

Another question was about road courtesy, and I have to say, the roads in Britain are extremely courteous. As are the drivers, although I’ll never convince anyone British of that. They tell me that today’s drivers have lost all respect for other people and for common decency. They’ll use the phrase road rage, which in this country tends to mean yelling at someone, not shooting them.

To be clear, it does occasionally mean someone gets punched, which can take the fun out of a trip to the beach, but by American standards? That’s not road rage, just bad temper.

What today’s drivers need is a serious tut.

Several people wanted to know about British profanity and one asked about “british swear insults.” They’re imaginative, which is why a couple of queries about cockwombles found their way to me, since it’s a question I did address.

I just love being an expert on something.

Great Britain

Invariably, a raft of people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. (Is a raft of people plural or singular? What a messed-up language we have. The more I know, the less I’m sure of anything.) I’ve written about why it’s called that and I’m bored with it. The more interesting questions ask things like “why is Britain Britain,” so let’s talk about that instead.

It’s because Britain’s stuck being Britain, the same way I’m stuck being Ellen Hawley. I could change my name—I thought about it at one point, and if you’re interested I’ll tell the tale, probably in the comments since it’s not worth a whole post—but even if I had, I’d still be me. Only the packaging would have changed.

That leads me to ask what a Britain is. You can’t deal with why it’s something until you figure out what you’re talking about.

Britain’s not—surprise, surprise—a country. The country is the United Kingdom. Britain’s a geographical term (I’m still bored with it; go see the earlier post if you want something marginally sensible). It’s also not a nation. The nations in the U.K. are Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. And Cornish nationalists would add Cornwall to the list.

So I’m going to assert—in the absence of any audible opposition—that I’m not being asked about Britain’s culture (nation) or history (country) but about its location (geography). Therefore, the answer to the question is as follows:

Britain is where it is because the British can’t move it. Most British people believe they’d like to live in a different climate (most of them, one that’s drier and warmer), so if towing were possible they’d have moved it somewhere else by now. Being human, they’d have spent their travel time arguing over whether this was the best direction to tow it in and when to drop anchor, but they would have moved it somewhere.

The problem is, or was, that it’s glued down. It’s not going anywhere.

Have I clarified that? I thought so.

Strange questions

Someone typed “little lamb and dog disappeared in u.k.” And they found me. Why? Well, I use the word dog in a heading, and U.K.’s in the title. So “What the hell,” the algorithm said to itself. “Where else am I going to send this? Dump it on that Hawley woman. It’ll keep her out of trouble for a while.”

As it happens, my partner and I have found lambs out wandering, but they were with their mother, not with a dog, and it was a while ago, so it would’ve been a different lamb. I’ll keep an eye out, though, if it’ll help.

Could someone let me know who to contact if I find them?

Someone else was—well, looking for something. All I can say for sure is that someone typed in “who use 6ish.” I probably did. I’m an –ish kind of person where numbers are involved, but I suspect I wasn’t what they were looking for. I did, though, in honor of whoever was looking, use sixish in the title of this post. One of these days I’ll figure out how many of them them there are in this category.

The fact that the question came to me probably means I claimed an earlier post in this category was also the sixthish. Sorry.

And finally, someone asked, “what do brits think of disney world.”

Wild Thing—my partner, who I haven’t written about in ages, not because I’ve forgotten about her but because the blog’s taken a less personal turn lately—was in Orlando, Florida, for a conference a hundred years ago, and she swore the place was full of British tourists wearing mouse ears and moaning about how they couldn’t find a decent cup of tea and what kind of motel/hotel doesn’t have a kettle in every room anyway?

For years, whenever someone in Britain told us they’d been to the U.S. she’d ask where they’d been. If they said Orlando—and they often did—she’d say, “We really don’t all wear mouse ears.”

I’m not at all sure they got the joke. Or recognized that they’d heard one. She got tired of finding out how many people go to Orlando and doesn’t usually ask these days.

Anyway, I think the answer is that the Brits who like it are happy to wear mouse ears. And the ones who don’t? They aren’t.

Does that help?