It’s Hip to be Square

As anyone who has been to the UK will know, we like to do things differently from the rest of Europe and, come to think of it, the rest of the world. We are the odd ones out and definitely the black sheep of Europe. While most countries drive on the right side, we drive on the left, otherwise known as the ‘wrong side’ by most other people in the world. Not only do we drive on a different side of the road we have different plugs to those in Europe, we measure ourselves in feet and inches not metres and weigh ourselves in stone rather than kilograms. On top of this we measure distance in miles rather than kilometers, our clothes and shoe sizes are also different to European sizes and we even have our own form of swearing, not to mention the fact we have our own time zone – GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) – making us one hour behind the rest of Europe (except Portugal, who also have GMT). And then there is the Euro…..

In short, we’re an awkward bunch and considered ‘strange’ by the rest of the world; but why is it that we are so ‘different’ from everyone else? Read on to find out about the history of some of our quirks…

Driving

The fact we drive on the ‘wrong side of the road’ (we consider it, of course, to be the ‘right side of the road’) is a cause of aggravation for many foreigners. Crossing the road is particularly hazardous when you are used to looking left then right and have to start looking right then left; but we also have the same problem when we go abroad, believe me. The question on everybody’s lips is ‘why can’t you just drive on the right like everyone else.’ Well, that would be too simple. It all goes back to the days of jousting knights when they had to pass each other on the right as their lance was placed under their right arm. In fact, it was Napoleon who introduced driving on the left to France during the revolution (we also have the French to thank for introducing the kilogram to the world)and the practice quickly spread through Europe with Sweden being the last European country to change over as late as 1967. When America too started driving on the right, several other countries followed suit. But in fact, it’s not just the Brits and Irish that drive on the left. Many former British colonies still drive on the left including Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong and Malta, however there are other countries such as Japan and Thailand who also drive on the left and were never British colonies. In fact one quarter of the world still drive on the left, so it seems we are not the odd ones out after all.

Swearing

The universal hand gesture to tell someone to go away in a rather more direct fashion is to stick your middle finger up at them, but in the UK if you stick 2 fingers up at somebody (the reverse of the V for Victory and peace sign) that will give them the same message. Legend has it, during the Battle of Agincourt (1415) between England and France the French were jealous of the English long bowmen’s skills and to try and scupper their success they would capture the English bowmen and chop off their first and middle fingers. As a way to taunt the French, the bowmen that still had their fingers would stick those 2 fingers up at them and this sign has stuck. Just remember which way round the peace and V for victory signs are when you are in the UK!

Taps

Another favourite bugbear of our foreign friends is the UK 2 tap situation. Tap-Gate if you like. If you have ever been to the UK you will probably have recoiled in horror the first time you saw and indeed used our really rather frustrating two tap sinks. So strong is the loathing of our separate hot and cold taps, Facebook groups have been set up and blogs written on the subject. I for one, having lived abroad many times, now realise having a 2 separate taps is just downright impractical; if only the rest of the UK would cotton on…As it is, to get warm water when washing your hands, you either have to turn on both taps and manually mix the water in your hands, put them plug in and mix the water in the sink, scold your hands by using just the hot tap, or just use the cold tap, freeze your hands and not kill any bacteria at all. It is amazing to think that people still buy separate taps when mixer taps are now available in the UK, thanks to the continental influence. Well, old habits do die hard, as they say. There is, as ever, method in this 2 tap madness though, and in fact it comes down to bacteria. For a long time only 2 taps were available in the UK as hot water and cold water had to be kept in separate tanks so bacteria could not get into the cold water supply, therefore 2 taps were needed to keep the water separate. Even now in the UK if you have a mixer tap the water is not mixed until it comes out of the tap.

Vauxhall not Opel

Why, asked a colleague of mine, are Opels (the car), called Vauxhalls in the UK? ‘You do like to be awkward, don’t you,’ she said. A little research later and it appears Vauxhall and Opel were 2 separate car companies, Vauxhall being British (the name originates from the area in London where they were originally manufactured), and Opel was a German company. The American car company General Motors took over the companies in 1925 and 1930 respectively and it wasn’t until the 1980 that the separate brands started making the same cars. Of course, the British wanted to keep their own brand name as it was very strong in the UK, but the Opel brand was bigger in the rest of the world, so the two separate names were kept. Ireland, however, switched over to Opel in the early 80’s, but then again they do also have the Euro…

The Euro

Ahh, the Euro, a topic of much debate in the UK and the rest of Europe. Another one of those ‘why don’t you just do the same as everyone else’ situations. The crux of the matter is, we Brits are proud of our currency and feel it would detract from the British identity if we didn’t have the British pound, rather like if we didn’t have the Royal family, but that is a whole other kettle of fish…

Find out more about the Euro debate here.

If you have any experiences of strange British quirks you would like to share with us, feel free to leave a comment below – just nothing offensive please!

You might also like: