Country Profile: Britain

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index


Country Profile: Britain

The total area of Great Britain is 58,000 square miles, barely the size of Michigan. From north to south is 400 miles, east to west 300 miles at its widest.

The population of Great Britain is about 56 million, making for a density o f 790 people per square mile, the highest in Europe after Holland. In and around London the figure rises into the thousands.

The climate is thrillingly bland. It averages a low of 35 degrees in London in the winter, and a high of 65 to 75 degrees in summer. 85 would be a heat wave. It rains a lot. The sky is rarely blue.

Northern England is the only area in the English-speaking world where "put" rhymes with "cut."

Who are the British and where do they belong?  A difficult question. For example, there's the difficulty Americans (not to mention the British) have in knowing what to call the country. Americans regularly use the word "England" and "English." Yet a Welsh woman like Catherine Zeta-Jones would certainly take exception, not to mention a Scotsman like Sean Connery, or an Irishman like Liam Neeson. It's natural for Americans to be prejudiced in favour of the name "England," since that was the country against which the U.S. Founding Fathers were rebelling. Great Britain didn't come into being as a national entity until 1803, by which time Americans had become set in their linguistic ways. But in Britain, the process of national evolution went on, as Ireland was annexed and then partitioned, until the present "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" came into being. It's not just the Americans who struggle with this question of national identity. The British have a problem with it too. Ask two Englishmen whether they feel more English or British and you'll almost certainly get two different answers.

At least we can sort out the various names. "England" is simply one part, the largest part, of Great Britain. Like the others, it was once a separate country. But through inheritance, its monarchy became the royal family for the country as a whole. Use the name "England" to refer only to England proper - just as you would use the name "Scotland" or "Wales."

Looking at the name problem geographically, you'll be concerned with the distinction between the different islands that make up the "British Isles." The largest island is "Great Britain," the second largest is "Ireland," and there's a scattering of other, tinier islands like the Hebrides, Shetlands, Orkneys, the Isle of Man, Anglesey, and the Isle of Wight. Speaking of national entities, there is Great Britain, or simply Britain, which is the name the British themselves use (whatever happened to that word 'Great?') It refers to the nation composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - plus those miniscule islands.

The problem is compounded when you add Europe to the equation. Americans include Britain in "Europe" as a matter of course. Yet the British continue to think of themselves and their traditions as distinct from those of the Continent. Britain forms a continent all by itself. They drive on the other side of the road; they play cricket; they drink more tea than coffee; they use miles rather than kilometers, feet and yards rather than meters, pounds rather than kilos. They still have haven't decided whether temperatures should be measured in fahrenheit or centigrade. There are hundreds of other examples. The British speak of "going on holiday to Europe" or "buying a European car." Britain's tortuous relationship with the European single currency is a case in point. Americans are tempted to reply: "But you're already part of Europe!" That's not always the British view. Ask three Scots whether they feel more Scottish, British or European and you're sure to get three different answers.

And don't forget the British relationship with the United States. For obvious linguistic, historical, economic and political reasons the British have a powerful tie with the United States that leads some people to think of Britain almost as the 51st state. Ask four Welshmen where their national interest lies and you may well get four different answers: in Cardiff, in London, in Brussels and in Washington DC.

Consider then the British Commonwealth. The Britsh (or the English in this case) have never really been a power in Europe but in the C18 and C19 Britain's Empire was the largest the world has ever seen. The legacy of this Empire today is the Commonwealth, comprising Canada, India, South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand and Australia among others. Ask five people from Northern Ireland where Britain's role in the world lies and you can imagine that five different answers are all very possible.

How the British Say It  People in Britain and the US speak the same language. Yet a strange barrier of incomprehension lies between them, as though the common language had lulled them into complacency. Several blind spots tend to show up.

There are many differences in the way Americans and British say things, even about modern inventions like TV. Here it's "Telly". In your hotel, a sink is also called a "basin". If you tell an Englishman you're going to go "wash up" before dinner, he'll think you're about to do the dishes. Of course you know the tube or Underground. A "subway" in Britain is an underground passageway for pedestrians. A highway is a "motorway". An American "traffic rotary" becomes in Britain a "roundabout." An American "rest area" on the highway becomes, in Britain, a "lay-by". The American "divided highway" is in Britain a "dual carriageway." An American "bus" is a "coach" in Britain. An American "truck" is a "lorry". Americans "mail" letters; the British "post" them. Americans put "salad dressing" on their salads; the British put "salad cream" on them. Americans order "coffee regular" (with cream) in restaurants; the British order "white coffee." For snacks, Americans munch on "cookies", the British on "biscuits." (What do the British call the things Americans call biscuits? The present writer is Egnlish and doesn't know.) Americans take "elevators" to the top floor, while the British take the "lift." Both use "escalators." In the US those with money send their sons to "private" schools, what the British call public schools. The trunk of an American car is the boot. The hood of an American car is, in Britain, the bonnet.The windshield is the windscreen; gas is petrol. In Britain the chemist is a pharmacist to an American. The American round trip is in Britain a return ticket. The American one-way ticket is in Britain the single ticket. Last names are surnames; first names are Christian names. American cider, in Britain, isn't Hallowe'en apple juice but an apple wine - at 8%, it can pack a wallop to the unwary. An American concert intermission is an interval in Britain. The Men's Room of a restaurant in Britain is called the Gents; Ladies Room is the same, but the British generally tend to omit the word 'room.' American garbage is British rubbish The bathroom is the loo or the W.C. British knickers are American panties.

There is still a quaint difference in British and American ways of being polite. In Britain you won't always hear "You're Welcome" in response to "Thank You." (This is an Irish habit which the US adopted centuries ago.) You will, however, probably hear people saying "sorry" to a lamppost they've bumped into, or to a piece of grass they've accidentally walked on when they were supposed to keep off.

About those English place-names  (COURIER: You might start this off by pointing out a road sign for a quaintly named town, like Frogmore or Bishop's Donkey. Don't bore the group to death with the whole thing, unless they're obviously enjoying it. Use interesting snatches here and there.)

These odd names always amuse and puzzle Americans. What do they mean? Where do they come from? No one has traced them all, but here are some we've figured out.

Begin with the -bury names: Canterbury, Salisbury, Shrewsbury, St. Edmundsbury, and even Peterborough. They are of Old English descent. Burgh, the Old English word for "fort", is practically identical with Burg in German and borg ("wall") in Old Norse. The literal meaning of "Canterbury" is only thinly disguised: Canterbury was the fort of the "Canters" or men of Kent. (Incidentally, our word "canter" derives from Canterbury; pilgrims riding to Thomas a Becket's shrine would go at an easy trot, a "canter", as those who told stories in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales reveal.)

Traces of Latin place-names remain in some of the names of English towns: -cester or -chester, occurring in such names as Lancaster, Worcester, Gloucester, Dorchester, Winchester, and Chester. The suffix "-cester" comes from castra, the Latin word for "camp". Many of these towns are on or near the sites of ancient Roman strongholds.

The -ford names refer to river-crossings, such as Oxford, Stratford (there are several Stratfords in England; hence the suffix "-on-Avon" to distinguish it from the others), Chelmsford, Bedford, etc. Oxford was simply a ford where oxen once crossed the river Thames. Stratford-on-Avon got its name because the Roman road crossed the Avon at that spot. (Avon comes from a Celtic word meaning "water", so it is really almost superfluous to say "the river Avon".) Cambridge is simpler yet: it was the location of an ancient bridge on the river Cam.

Liverpool, of Beatles fame, recalls in its name the mythical "liver" bird — rather like an eagle, at least it looks like an eagle on the city's coat of arms; so Liverpool is the pool or harbor of the "liver"bird.

Several towns have -chip or -cheap in their names. For example, Chipping Norton and Chipping Campden, both near Stratford. -chip comes from an Old English word meaning "market"; a variation occurring in Cheapside or Eastcheap should tell us that Cheapside was the old marketplace in London. Chipping Norton (Norton is a slurred form of "north-town") was still a wool-market in Shakespeare's day, and the importance wool had in the medieval economy can hardly be exaggerated. Wool was England's chief export to continental markets, and the "wool-sack" that the Lord Chancellor sits on when he presides over the House of Lords reminds us how important wool was (and is, for that matter).

Unlike France, Britain named very few of its towns for saints. One notable exception is Boston, a town just off the English Channel not far from Lincoln. Boston is a careless form of "Botolph's-town", named for the 7th-century abbot who founded the town. Nothing else is known of this Saxon saint, but he just might have been a patron saint of gateways. That might explain why there were four churches named for Botolph at four of the seven medieval London gates. One could guess that Boston was a rallying-place for Puritans, because the Massachusetts colonists named their chief settlement for Boston. (They would hardly have had St. Botolph in mind, for saints' days were forbidden in Massachusetts, along with maypoles.) The imposing tower of St. Botolph's Church in Boston (England) is locally called "Boston stump", and this calls to mind some other affectionate Britishisms: "Big Ben"; "Great Paul" and "Great Tom" at St. Paul's, "Tom Tower" at Christchurch College, Oxford; and "Bell Harry", the lantern tower of Canterbury Cathedral.

Speaking of towers, one of England's loveliest is the tower of Magdalen (pronounced, "mau' dlin") College, Oxford, and the name suggests another characteristic of many English place-names, that they are slurred, some for so long that the spelling has even been changed (like "Boston" for "Botolph's-town"). Another is St. Marylebone (pronounced maribun) which you pass through on the way out of London toward Oxford. It is a slurred form of St. Mary-le-bourne, St. Mary of the stream. Some others that have slurred pronunciations but "unslurred: spellings are: Southwark (suh' therk), Worcester (woos'ter), Greenwich (gren' nitch), and Dulwich (dull' itch).

But back to Magdalen: our word Maudlin (effusively sentimental) also derives from St. Mary Magdalen. During the Middle Ages, the prostitute who became a follower of Jesus was almost always pictured with red eyes, weeping over her past sins; the pictures were - well , maudlin.

Tawdry has a similar story. Lace sold in London at St. Audrey's Fair was cheap and showy — and so tawdry. (The "t" is all that remains of the adjective "saint"; actually, St. Audrey was itself a slurred form of St. Ethelreda.)

A third such word is bedlam. In medieval London, there was a hospital named for St. Mary of Bethlehem; Bethlehem became Bedlam, and bedlam came to mean "pandemonium" because St. Mary's hospital housed lunatics. "Pandemonium" itself is a word coined by Milton.

London churches have some unusual names too. All Hallows Barking-by-the-Tower, for example, has nothing to do with dog-noises. It was named for the abbey at Barking, in Essex; "by-the-Tower", of course, means by the Tower of London. And there is St. Andrew Undershaft, right next to St. Mary Axe. Apparently, "undershaft" refers back to the maypole that stood in the churchyard until 1517; the story goes that the pole ("shaft") was taller than the church. The origin of St. Mary Axe is not known, but it's intriguing just the same.

And then there's St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, hardly in the fields at all, but in Trafalgar Square. But when the first church was built on that site (1222), St. Martin's was indeed "in the fields", outside the London wall. And there is St. Katherine Creechurch. St. Katherine's is on the site of an ancient monastery named Cristchurch, and somehow "Christchurch" go to be Creechurch". An annual event there is the "Lion Sermon". Sir John Gayer, Lord Mayor of London in 1646, escaped from a lion in Arabia, and was so thankful he endowed an annual sermon to commemorate his providential rescue. Another interesting name is that of St. Lawrence Jewry. The name recalls that Jews lived in the district, until Edward I banished them from Britain in the late C13. St. Lawrence Jewry also has an annual sermon, the "Spittal Sermon"; the name comes from another church, St. Mary Spittal, and no one seems to know what that name means. The Lord Mayor always attends the "Spittal Sermon" in full regalia.

St. Mary-le-Bow, an ancient Norman church, was supposedly so named because of its vaulted crypt. That is, the church was supported by "bows" (arches) of stone. True Londoners - "cockneys" - are those born within the sounding distance of the Bow Bells. The name of St. Clement's Danes suggests that church's origin: the church was built on the site of a pre-Norman Viking outpost. (This is the church of the famous nursery rhyme, "Oranges and lemons, ring the bells of St. Clements'.")

Unfortunately, many of the English place-names can't be explained. Here are several to ponder: Leighton Buzzard, Sutton Hoo, Stoke Poges, Haltwhistle, Maidenhead Thicket, Eyemouth, Gravesend, Devil's Elbow, Barrow-in Furness, Chipping Sodbury, Mousehole St. Bee's Head.

Kings and Queens of England  The following little mnemonic is the easiest and most enjoyable way to introduce the group to a "who's who" of the British monarchy, useful if you are doing the Tower of London, Windsor or Hampton Court, or just to pass the time in a vaguely informative and interesting way:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three
One Two Three Teds, Richard Two
Henry Four Five Six, then who?
Edward Four Five, Dick the Bad
Henry, Henry, Ned the Lad
Mary, Bessie, James the Vain
Charlie, Charlie, James again.
William and Mary, Anna Gloria
Four Georges, William and Victoria.

(This is as far as the rhyme goes. You'll have to figure out the twentieth century for yourselves.)

The mnemonic explained: the following does not hope to cover all aspects of the various reigns...

Willie  William the Conqueror, Norman, last man to invade England successfully
Willie  William II, red-haired irascible bachelor, probably assassinated while out hunting
Harry  Henry I, there is nothing to say about this generally good king
Stee  Stephen, "In the days of this king there was nothing but strife"
Harry  Henry II, enemy and murderer (by proxy) of Thomas à Becket
Dick  Richard I, the Lionheart, crusader king
John  King John, signatory of the Magna Carta, enemy of the legendary Robin Hood
Harry Three  Henry III, calm, cultured, clever, cosmopolitan coward
One Ted  Edward I, nicknamed Longshanks because of his incredibly long legs
Two Ted  Edward II, gruesomely murdered by means of a red-hot poker stuck up his arse
Three Ted  Edward III, famous as the father of his more famous son, the Black Prince
Richard Two  Richard II, murdered in prison, first casualty of the Wars of the Roses
Henry Four  Henry IV, the only king of England to have had both leprosy and epilepsy
Five  Henry V, a warrior king, victor over the French at Agincourt
Six  Henry VI, murdered in Tower of London, another victim of the Wars of the Roses
Edward Four  Edward IV, dull
Five  Edward V, king for two months, aged 13. One of the "Princes in the Tower"
Dick the Bad  Richard III, hunchback? murderer? "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse"??
Henry  Henry VII, Shakespearian hero, ender of the Wars of the Roses
Henry  Henry VIII, he of the six wives, dissolver of monasteries, founder of the C of E
Ned the Lad  Edward VI, too young to rule. Died of TB aged 16
(Lady Jane Grey sneaks in here but she doesn't count because she didn't last long enough)
Mary  Mary, Bloody Mary, executor of Protestants
Bessie  Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, patron of explorers, victor over the Spanish Armada
James the Vain  James I, Scottish, "the wisest fool in Christendom"
Charlie  Charles I, defeated by Cromwell in the English Civil War. Executed.
Charlie  Charles II, presider over such disasters as the Great Plague and the Fire of London
James Again  James II, too much of a Catholic for contemporary English tastes
William and Mary  First monarchs to be second to Parliament in the hierarchy of government
Anna Gloria  Queen Anne, successful in all but this: she had over 20 children but none survived
Four Georges, George I, unfortunately for a king of England, he didn't speak English
George II, the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle
George III, farmer George, mad George, last king of America
George IV, former Prince Regent, flamboyant, extravagant, dandy, Big Spender
William  William IV, boring. Nothing happened.
Victoria  Queen Victoria, Empress of India, definer of all that's English about England

TAKE THE FIRST STEP

BROWSE TOURS REQUEST INFO
passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.


Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA

STAY CONNECTED

Educational Travel Link Icon   Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:

CONTACT US

passports
7 Midstate Drive Suite 102
Auburn, MA 01501

1-800-332-7277
Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2018 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy