Confirming Kate Fox’s anthropological observation that the creative love of wordplay evinced by tabloid headlines is one of rather few things of which the British can be proud, how about this one today (about a table-tennis player involved in an altercation, you understand):
Never mind all the compelling reasons why the UK might balk at hosting an evil racist misogynist bigot bent on destroying all moral values and sowing global discord. Instead, it may be this one—stated in the petition against the visit—that will quaintly hold sway:
because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.
And we can’t have that now can we? As to “putting the Queen in a very difficult position”, let’s not go there…
Court jester Boris, as usual, opens his mouth and puts his foot in it with the argument: we’ve had Mugabe, we’ve had Ceausescu, why not Go for Gold? There’s a fantasy dinner party from hell…
It seems to me that the English love of words—and particularly the universal nature of this passion, which transcends all class barriers—is most perfectly demonstrated not by the erudite wit of the broadsheet columnists, brilliant though they are, but by the journalists and sub-editors who write the headlines in the tabloids. Take a random selection of English tabloids and flip through them: you will soon notice that almost every other headline involves some kind of play on words—a pun, a double meaning, a deliberate jokey misspelling, a literary or historical reference, a clever neologism, an ironic put-down, a cunning rhyme or amusing alliteration, and so on.
Yes, many of the puns are dreadful; much of the humour is labored, vulgar or childish; the sexual innuendo is overdone; and the relentlessness of the wordplay can become wearing after a while. You may find yourself longing for a headline that simply gives you the gist of the story, without trying to be funny or clever. But the sheer ingenuity and linguistic playfulness must be admired, and all this compulsive punning, rhyming and joking is uniquely and gloriously English. Other countries may have “quality” newspapers at least as learned and well written as ours, but no other national press can rival the manic wordplay of English tabloid headlines. So there we are: something to be proud of.
If it’s pop armchair ethnography you want (and why not, sometimes?), then
- Kate Fox, Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour
To be impeccably English, […] one must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and above all, embarrassed. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behaviour. (41)
And her insights into the “Typical!” rule (pp.199–200, 303–305) and funerals (pp.374–8)… Her final list of English traits (pp.400–414) includes Social dis-ease and Reflexes such as Humour, Moderation, Hypocrisy, Eeyorishness, Fair play, and Modesty. I’ve also cited her remarks on headline punning.
And say what you like about Bill Bryson, but he too has some fine insights into the British (Notes from a small island, pp.68–9):
It has long seemed to me unfortunate—and I’m taking the global view here—that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have done it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the impositioning of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those over the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.
On a related tack (pp.98–9):
And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. […] They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting—a slice of gâteau or a choice of chocolates from a box—and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
“Oh, I shouldn’t really,” they say.
“Oh, go on,” you prod encouragingly.
“Well, just a small one then,” they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant conformation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.