24 March 2010

Taking the mickey

"Taking the mickey," along with its less-polite variant "taking the piss," is a British expression meaning to tease or poke fun at. So let's take a moment to take the mickey out of some UK quirks.

1. Two-tap sinks

Back in ye olden tymes, sinks had hot taps and cold taps with separate pipes to each. It is no longer those times. If I can have wireless fiberoptic internet in my apartment, surely it is not too much to ask that I have one tap producing a usable-temperature water, instead of one that give me frostbite and one that gives me burns? My fingers are actually chapped and cracked from using these ridiculous (and omnipresent) sinks. There is even a Facebook group called "You are not an advanced country if you have separate water taps."And you know what? It's true.

2. Honey Cheerios

Not Honey Nut Cheerios, just Honey Cheerios. Why? I'm not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has to do with allergy packaging regulations (this is, after all, a country of nut-free schools - at least in the literal sense.) Made extra amusing by the fact that the Honey Cheerios URL above on the Nestle site still ends with "cheerios-honeynut.aspx." Further cereal fun fact: Frosted Mini Wheats are just Frosted Wheats here.

3. The word "revision"

The first time I heard this was in French class, when the French-born teacher kept talking about how we were surely all revising for exams. Revising? Surely he meant "reviewing." But no. "Revision" is the commonly accepted UK term for reviewing. (See, for instance, "Sleeping helps students revise")

I could handle this as a one-for-one switch. What I can't process is that "revision" also incorporates the U.S. meaning of "to rewrite or edit." So in my research yesterday, I came across the sentence, "The committee revised the rules," and I have no idea what happened. Did they review the rules? Did they rewrite the rules? There is no way to tell!

4. Listed buildings

I'm all about conservation as far as architecture goes, but the "listing" program in the UK can be a bit goofy. Begun after World War II, it was intended to offer government protection to buildings of architectural and historical interest but has become a monster. You can't for instance, replace energy-inefficient old windows in a listed building with double-glazing without special permission. And that's assuming you even had a vote in getting your building listed in the first place.

As anybody who lived in Morse or Stiles can tell you, what constitutes good architecture is not a fixed concept. Unfortunately, listing is fixed. Once a building gets listed, you're pretty much stuck with it. Hence the outrage at Edinburgh a few years back when the university tried to list Appleton Tower. In the 1960s, a bunch of Georgian buildings (beautiful 200-year-old town houses) were torn down to construct this:

(The building in the front is William Robertson - Billy Bobberson to its friends - and is also hideous, but for the moment let's focus on the one in the back).

In the early 2000s, Appleton received architectural and historical interest, but not perhaps the kind Historic Scotland likes: students nominated it for demolition. A prominent geneticist alumnus of Edinburgh University consider "the ugliness of Appleton Tower" one of the seven wonders of the world. For some blindingly obscure reason, Historic Scotland decided that this was the right time to try to list Appleton Tower, thereby inflicting it upon us for all time. It didn't succeed, but what the heck! There's always next year!

5. UK Keyboards

The US and the UK are no longer merely two countries divided by a common language. We are now two countries divided by an uncommon computer keyboard.

Yes, UK keyboards have a few sneaky modifications to the U.S. layout. I can understand switching it so that the single quote ('), rather than the double quote (") is the default key just beside your right pinky, as the single quote is the correct UK usage for speech. It's just a formatting convention. What I can't figure out is why you'd bring the @ symbol down from the numbers row to replace the double-quote. I hardly ever use the @ symbol. Do British people send more e-mails than American ones? Or do they merely have less-effective autocomplete in their mail programs (programmes)? It. drives me nuts that my left shift key is shortened by a full key width, replaced with a useless forward slash, and I don't even know what the letter ¬ means. It looks like the Korean letter for the sound @k@.

Dang it, that was supposed to be "k." Curse you, UK keyboards!!!!!


  1. I have a similar problem with the # key. Why did they feel the need to move it? And right next to the ENTER key?

    Im going to second the hot/cold (or, scalding/frozen) tap comment. It is ridiculous.

    I also feel pained that I cant get food in the pubs I drink a ton of beer in. Why do the best pubs not have food? A toastie is not food.

  2. Arp, maybe that's an England thing. All the good pubs here at least have decent burgers.

    Mike - Yay!

  3. I do not know who really developed the first computer keyboard, but it might actually be the american one that was changed? just sayin'.
    As a European, I feel your pain, though! I am used to my Austrian/German keyboard and when I lived in the US, I found myself unable to write my last name corretly because th Z and Y keys are in each others place in the US. (might be in the UK too, for all I know). took a while to get used to that.... the @ is situated on th Q here by the way, you need Alt Gr to access it...

    I never undestood the two tap thing but apparently you are supposed to use the sink. Right, that's what I do in a public restroom!

    Listing is done similarly here in Austria, you have no say in it and it makes live exceedingly difficult for people! Although we have different windows to start with (we call them box windows, ie two sets of windows after each other) which tend to close much better than the British ones....