Category Archives: Language

The Call of the Pun

When it comes to newspaper headlines, the British never met a pun they didn’t like. Some of the subeditors who come up with these are consummate artists; others should be relieved of their responsibilities and set to more constructive work elsewhere—digging ditches, maybe.

The ne plus ultra of the punning headline came from a story about politician Michael Foot being named to lead a group working towards nuclear disarmament, which ran under one of the world’s all-time great headlines: “Foot Heads Arms Body.”

Call of the wild 2That’s often quoted, but rarely with attribution. The inter-net being what it is, some sites say the line came from the Daily Mirror and some that it’s from The Times; if I looked further, it’s likely every newspaper over here would be mentioned sooner or later. It’s possible that somebody made the whole thing up and that headline never appeared anywhere. (If anyone has the facts, I’d love to hear them.)

That’s an unusual example not only for its multi-level cleverness, but because it headed a serious news story. Punning headlines appear more often in the travel sections or home sections of the broadsheet papers, where it’s impossible to escape puns such as “Goan Inside” (Goa beyond the tourist areas), “Loch, Stock and Barrel” (loch-side property for sale in Scotland), and “Join the Press Gang” (growing your own olives), to list some I’ve run across recently in broadsheets. I won’t comment on the tabloids; British tabloids are another animal altogether, and I wouldn’t put anything past their editors.

Of course you get punning headlines in the US, but not to the extent you do here. And here, there doesn’t seem to be any requirement that the headline reflect the content of the story. Olives, for example, have nothing to do with press gangs. I once saw the headline “Call of the Wild” on a book review when the reviewed book had nothing to do with the novel Call of the Wild, or with Jack London, or with dog-sledding, or with Alaska. The article was about Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, set in the Texas Panhandle. Go figure. My guess is that an overworked British subeditor either didn’t know anything about Call of the Wild beyond the title and figured that all of these outlandish American places must be similarly uncivilized, or didn’t know that Anchorage is as far from Amarillo as London is from Mecca.

Ace in the Hole CoverTo be fair, I didn’t know that exact distance factoid, either, although I did know roughly how far the Yukon is from northern Texas and certainly knew how utterly different the two regions are. And I knew that Amarillo, biggest city in the Texas Panhandle, is a place that British readers will have heard of. Everybody over here seems to know the Neil Sedaka song “Is This the Way to Amarillo?”, which I’d never heard before my move to the UK.

Some punning headlines leave me cold because they turn on British pronunciations that are foreign to me. A friend had to explain why a profile of Joaquin Phoenix was titled “Joaquin On the Wild Side”. I don’t pronounce Joaquin as walkin’ (in California, it was pronounced something more like whhah-KEEN) but apparently walkin’ is what they say here, or at least it’s something close enough that the pun works for British readers. And obeying the headline-doesn’t-have-to-pertain-to-story rule, the article didn’t refer to any sort of wild behavior by Phoenix, either.

Since puns in headlines usually feature in, well, features, puns in headlines over hard news can make it look as though the newspaper is rather unfortunately making light of serious subjects. I’ll grant them “Foot Heads Arms Body” as being too good to pass up, but when the main photo on the front page of the Sunday Times was of Ted Kennedy’s casket carried by an honour guard, I didn’t expect to see the accompanying article headlined “Four Presidents and a Funeral”. Yes, Bush Sr, Clinton, Carter, and Obama all attended, but is it necessary to make light of the death of an important American politician? I don’t think an American broadsheet-quality newspaper would run such a story under a jokey headline, but these days that may be because major American newspapers are falling like dominos and there aren’t that many left.

Still, when the British get it right, they really get it right. I’ll end with a tremendous example of the punster’s art, even though it takes some explanation: _38993885_sunheadline203Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club, sometimes known as Caley, played the Celtic Football Club of Glasgow for a Scottish football cup despite the fact that Caley is in a lower league and Celtic is one of the major UK teams in the premier league. Caley managed one of the all-time great upsets, beating Celtic 1-0, and the Scottish edition of The Sun ran the story as “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”.

Okay, football doesn’t have anything to do with Mary Poppins, but that is one premier-league pun.


Filed under Arts, Language

On the Street Where I Live

Okay, I live in England—but where? That’s complicated. In fact, it looks like it’s going to take more than one blog post to explain about British houses, streets, and addresses.

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

The Street, Puttenham, Surrey

Street addresses aren’t always straightforward in the US, either. I grew up in Kentucky on North Broadway Park—except here in the UK they would say I grew up in North Broadway Park. The only people in the US who grew up in streets would have to have been homeless.

Mail addressed to us would occasionally wander over to South Broadway Park or to North Broadway (no Park) before reaching us, and my teetotal mother didn’t appreciate that our twin on North Broadway (no Park) was a bar. When I moved to California, I used to underline North once and Park twice when I sent a letter home, which seemed to help. Later I worried that as my parents grew older that if they ever needed an ambulance, help might go down to the tavern on North Broadway.

Surely it’s better to live at a place with an address that isn’t easily confused with another place, right? But the wonderful old farmhouse we fell in love with in California sat on/in West Meadow Drive, a little two-block extension of the much longer and better-known East Meadow Drive. It’s remarkable how many people can hear “West Meadow” and yet write down “East Meadow”.

The Street, Compton, Surrey

The Street, Compton, Surrey

Then we moved to England, where addresses suffer all kinds of further complications, the first one being that many houses have only names, no numbers at all. We lived for a few years in a house called Berwick Cottage. No number. And no way for anyone to find us except to go up and down the street, looking for the house names on signs in the front yards/gardens. Berwick Cottage sat between White Heathers and Wickets—picturesque, but without rhyme or reason.

Berwick Cottage and most of its neighbors dated from the 1930s, so by English standards, they’re practically brand new. After Berwick Cottage we lived in a house so old that no one knows when it was built, but since the town map of 1500 included that house, it presumably dates from 14-something. Giving houses numbers along a street is a newfangled practice brought in by an Act of Parliament in 1765, and it’ll take more than a mere few centuries here to change the habit of naming, rather than numbering, dwellings. Yet our 15th-century house had a number; you’re allowed to change a named house to a numbered house, but not to change a numbered house to a named house. They’re phasing out naming of houses, but they don’t seem to mind if it takes quite a while; when people here think about results in the long term, it can be the extremely long term.

Names of older properties can be more confusing because they often took their names from a manor house or stately home nearby, which made for a lot of redundancy. So—to make up an example—near to a place called Greatbig Manor you may very likely find Greatbig Lodge (possibly the original gatehouse for the manor), Greatbig House, Greatbig Farm, Greatbig Cottage, Greatbig Farm Cottage, and so on.

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

The Street, Compton, Surrey (camouflaged)

These will be situated on Greatbig Road, Greatbig Street, Greatbig Lane, Greatbig Avenue, Greatbig Close (close means court), and so on. Finding an address in one of those areas can feel like moving through a hall of mirrors. Didn’t we see that street just a minute ago?

At the other end of the scale,the principal street of smaller villages may simply be called The Street (see illustrations for three of the very many The Streets in our corner of Surrey). Or in truly tiny hamlets, people may omit the street name altogether, leaving residents with addresses such as The Old Schoolhouse, Tinyhamlet. Now that’s Olde Worlde, for sure. (Although even The Old Schoolhouse would have to have a post code, but let’s leave post codes vs. zip codes for another time, shall we?)

These streets—Greatbig Avenue and so on—also change names from time to time as they meet other streets at intersections. What looks like one long road can be a series of smaller roads each with its own name; stay on Aldershot Road long enough and it becomes Guildford Road, then Ash Street, then High Street (most towns of any size have High Streets just as American towns have Main Streets) and so on. There’s often no sign to alert drivers that the road name has changed. This continual metamorphosing of roads into other roads can make following directions impossible.

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

The Street, Shalford, Surrey

Lost in England, you might hear from a helpful local “turn left at the pub, then go to the end of the road and…” But what is “the end of the road”? In the US, I would normally drive on until I came to a T-junction and had no choice but to turn because the road has, well, ended. Here, you just have to know that after a couple of blocks (using the term loosely as the Anglo-Saxons didn’t lay out their towns with rectilinear streets) Queen’s Road becomes Queensway becomes Victoria Avenue, often without anything to mark the change so that some nondescript corner, very much like any other corner, might be “the end of the road”.

On the other hand, some parts of England still use roads that were first laid out by the Romans; these will run straight as a ruler for miles and miles, often without changing names throughout much of their lengths. These tend to be named Stane Street or Stone Street, because Romans paved their roads and Anglo-Saxon used muddy tracks. One Stane Street still runs from London through Surrey and West Sussex to Chichester remaining Stane Street for most of its length, though in small sections it does use aliases.

Oh, and with Roman roads still in use, it’s not too surprising that you’ll find some very old buildings on streets called New Street; if you come across a New Street, it might have been named centuries ago.

There are also regional variations, most notably in the city of York, where the roads into the city still run through gates in the medieval city wall. But the gates in the wall are called bars—Monk Bar, Bootham Bar—and roads in the city are called gates—Petergate, Gillygate, Goodramgate. (The bars, of course, are called pubs.) Just to make things more interesting, you also find hybrids, such as Micklegate Bar. Not knowing the local customs, I once spent ages wandering around trying to find my hotel using directions I couldn’t understand. (In this case, bar comes from a bar such as a tollgate would have had, and gate comes from the Viking word for street.)

When you move up to discussion of the names of towns and villages, it gets even more complicated—I’ll leave that for the next post. Besides, it’s tea time.


Filed under Culture, Language

How do you say that in Welsh?

Here’s a brief postscript to the recent post on pedestrian crossings:

Wales has to put up all road signs in two languages. Even though almost everyone speaks English and just over 20% of the people speak Welsh, both are official languages–and sometimes they run into translation problems.

In 2006, they put up this sign, meant to tell people, in both languages, to look right.
Welsh look-right-or-left

Unfortunately, the Welsh reads “look left”.


Then last October, government employees who needed to erect a sign warning truck drivers not to enter a residential area, sent off an email message to a translator, asking how the Welsh version of the sign should read. They got an answer back and the sign was duly manufactured. You can see from the picture what it says in English.
Welsh out-of-office

In Welsh, it reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.

Well, it could happen to anybody, really, couldn’t it?

Read the full stories at and


Filed under Language, Uncategorized

Horseback Writing

A couple of days ago I got on the phone to organizers of other writing groups in the Surrey–Hampshire area, trying to drum up interest in a joint effort at publicity.  My first call started in confusion and only got worse: 

“Where did you say you got my name, again?”

“Your group’s web site.  Your writing group.”

“I don’t belong to a group like that.”

“Oh! I beg your pardon.  Um, but it does say ‘The Art of Writing’, with your name.”


“And this number.”

“Oh, dear.  I think there’s been some dreadful mistake.”

“I’m sorry.  But maybe…that is, do you happen to know who’s in charge of the group now?”

“Well… I don’t know.  What kind of horses are you interested in? 


It was my accent.  I grew up in the bluegrass region of Kentucky (though they didn’t let the likes of me get anywhere near the thoroughbreds); she grew up in England.  I said writing; she heard riding.* 

A drama student who tends bar at one of the pubs on my normal flight path (the Seahorse in Shalford, if you want to know) tells me that in drama school here, they’re taught a generic American accent and a generic American Southern accent.  I don’t think it’d be polite to point out that there’s no such thing as a generic American accent and there are any number of different Southern accents, too, so I don’t.  I’d be very surprised if American drama schools did any better than that at teaching British accents; from what I can tell, there are as many different British regional accents as there are American regional accents, even though the UK is only a little more than twice the size of Kentucky. 

That drama students learn a generic US accent explains a thing or two about what I hear on the radio.  You get actors in dramas (we have excellent spoken-word radio here) who are meant to be playing Americans, but who sound at times as if they’re from Wisconsin, and at other times in the same program/programme as if they’re from Virginia.  Or less often, you hear actors whose speech bears no identifiable relation to anything I’ve ever heard, anywhere in the USA. 

And then there’s the case of the intrusive R. The British seem sometimes to save those Rs they don’t pronounce at the end of words (supah for super, ka for car) so that they can tack them onto the ends of words that don’t have an R in the first place; I’m already tired of hearing Obama called President Obamer, and I once came in on a radio broadcast I couldn’t understand at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea.  Some American accents do include the intrusive R, but when you get that R mixed into the speech of an actor trying to sound like he’s from, say, Texas, it falls very oddly on my American ear. 

Then again, sometimes you get extremely accomplished actors with very convincing American accents and you can even think you’re listening to an American actor until the speaker falls foul of a tiny exception to an otherwise valid rule—which brings us back to the T pronounced as D.  While it’s true that Americans don’t pronounce a T anywhere near as crisply as the British do, even so, we do leave some Ts alone.  A supposedly American character in a BBC Radio 4 drama the other day was exposed when he got to a line about something that happened in 1939.  Now, it’s a big country, and perhaps some Americans somewhere say ninedeen for nineteen, but I’ve never come across one.  And even though we don’t say ninedeen, most do say thirdy-nine andninedy-three.  The poor actor needed to keep in mind that what most Americans would actually say is nineteen thirdy-nine.  

(I haven’t looked at this in detail, but I’m guessing the N in front of the T makes the difference.  We say antique, not andique, for example, and untried, not undried.  I’m sure a linguistics scholar somewhere has already figured this out, probably a century ago, and formulated a multisyllabic name for the rule.) 

It’s practically impossible, I think, to defuse all of the pronunciation landmines for a British actor playing an American on the radio (although it wouldn’t cost much to hire an American to listen to the cast during just one rehearsal, and correct their slips, and I’m available).  As for me, fortunately I don’t have to say anything for broadcast, and I’ve learned to modify what I say over the phone.  When I have to give out some number—phone, credit card, National Insurance (that’s like Social Security)—I take care to alter the way I say five and nine so that my Kentucky I vowel doesn’t throw the person at the other end. 

But I’d never encountered confusion over writing and riding.  Now that I’m aware of the problem, I’ll watch for it.  And the conversation gave me a great idea for a new hobby, perhaps even a new art form: horseback writing. 

* Even though, like most Americans, I turn the T of writing into a D when I pronounce writing, the words writing and riding sound different to me.  In my Kentucky accent, the first I of writing gets a diphthong and sounds like the more mainstream American I, while riding gets a monophthong, the long I that people associate with the American South.  I was in my thirties before someone asked me why I pronounced the I in bike differently from the I in bicycle, and I stopped to think about it; turns out it’s controlled by whether a voiced or voiceless consonant follows the vowel, and is a phenomenon well-known to, well, to the kind of people who study such things. 


Filed under Language, Uncategorized

My Husband and I

Postscript to yesterday’s offering: 

An American reader asked me why I didn’t write, near the beginning of yesterday’s post, my husband and I decided (because she thought that my use of we was awkward and ambiguous; when your friends are editors, you have these kinds of conversations). 

Here’s why I didn’t do that: over here, that phrase is a big a joke.  Over here, everybody knows that the person famous for starting off a bit of verbiage with my husband and I is Her Majesty the Queen. 

Documentaries include clips of her saying it; comedians make jokes about it; every impressionist who imitates the queen works the phrase my husband and I into the routine.  If you innocently say my husband and I over a drink at the pub, you’re likely to get some ribbing.  

Maybe she works as hard to avoid using we when she’s off-duty as the rest of us do to avoid my husband and I all the time.  Because when the queen says we, she could be referring to herself in the role of the personification of the country, that is, using the royal we, also called the Victorian we and the majestic plural.  (Technically, this is nosism, which means using we to refer to oneself.) 

And no impression of the queen would be complete without the phrase Did you come far?  Apparently that’s her all-purpose question when meeting the public; it has the advantages of implying a polite interest in the other party while being apolitical, completely inoffensive, and easy to answer.  Her Majesty is nothing if not diplomatic.  Presumably when she meets residents of hospitals, children’s homes and the like, she has a backup question ready.

 When we first looked into moving over here, I happened onto some advice from a British ex-pat for fellow-countrymen moving to the USA.  He suggested that Americans’ inexplicable attitude to their flag makes more sense if you think that Americans feel towards the flag the way the British feel towards the queen.  

Most people do seem to feel affectionate towards her, although there are lots of republicans, too—republican meaning, over here, someone who thinks we should get rid of the monarchy.  Still, even republicans seem to show the queen a certain respect in person, although in print, anything goes.  For starters, cartoonists and satirists refer to her as Brenda, and I’ve never figured out why; one suggestion is that it takes her down a peg to have a name common (as it were) in the working class.

 Once I explained all this, the reader suggested I could use my husband’s name, if I explained who I was talking about, and so make the whole thing more clear without using my husband and I.  Why didn’t I just write Ernest, my husband, and I? But that makes it sound as if, as Princess Diana famously said, there are three people in this marriage, and I don’t really want  to go there.


Filed under Language