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Doctor Martens in action (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Doctor Martens in action (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Doctor Martens in action (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Language is just one of the hurdles it’s necessary to get over in order to foster better understanding and communication between the U.S. and the U.K.

And as it looks like we’re going to be debating spellings for a while to come, it’s probably a good time to also try and clear up any confusion around British shops, British foodstuffs and British clothing that tend to crop up from passing mentions in songs, movies and TV shows. That way, visitors won’t feel lost when faced with the alien landscape of the British high street.

1. Sainsbury’s

A ubiquitous supermarket name to drop in all forms of British drama and comedy, from EastEnders to The Mighty Boosh (whose wizard supermarket has the name Shamansbury’s). Perhaps the peak of mentions for this particular supermarket is the Chas ‘n’ Dave song “Rabbit,” in which a woman who is considered to talk too much is described as having “more rabbit than Sainsbury’s” which, if nothing else, does rather imply that British supermarkets sell oven-ready rabbit on a regular basis. They do not.

2. Cornetto

There are two things that spring to mind when you mention these tasty ice cream treats to anyone British of a certain age. The first is the song “O Sole Mio” by Giovanni Capurro, which was furnished with new lyrics for an advertising campaign in the 1970s and has entered the public consciousness ever since. The lyrics go: “Just one Cornetto, give it to me, delicious ice cream, of Italy” and I did not have to look them up.

The second thing is the trilogy of movies made by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that began with Shaun of the Dead. At no point does anyone attempt to sing any old Neopolitan ballads in any of these films.

3. Curly Wurly

Curly Wurly (Photo: Cadbury)
Curly Wurly (Photo: Cadbury)

Fans of Alan Partridge might well recognize this term—his survival pack from I’m Alan Partridge contained “a torch, a Curly Wurly, a book of stamps, a free digital watch with denim strap, a vodka miniature, a Bic-style razor and a copy of the Daily Express”—but it’s based on a very real item of confectionary. The Curly Wurly is a chocolate bar (note: not candy bar) with a chewy caramel center. The key detail is that it is not one long solid bar, it’s more like a weird ladder, with holes along its length. Actually, the key detail is that it is called a Curly Wurly, which makes it fun to say.

4. Wimpy

Since McDonalds, KFC and Burger King came to dominate the British high street, Wimpy has declined in cultural ubiquity, but for a while it was the only place to access American burger ‘n’ fries, albeit in a British sort of way. The original London restaurant was called Wimpy Bar, and was an offshoot of the fabled Lyons Corner House. They served (and still serve) fast food on crockery, offering milkshakes in glasses and generally delivering a more civilized version of the fast food experience. So it’s no surprise Wimpy has been hymned in song, with references by Jethro Tull (“Up To Me”), T. Rex (“Misfit”) and Genesis (“Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”). And the X-Ray Spex song “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” contains this disturbing stanza: “I drove my polypropolene car on wheels of sponge, then pulled into a Wimpy Bar to have a rubber bun.” Delicious.

5. Watney’s Red Barrel

Having reached a peak of popularity in the 1970s (and a reference in Monty Python’s travel agent sketch) Watney’s Red Barrel—a pasteurized cask bitter with no yeast that requires a carbon dioxide goosing before it can be poured—has suffered a decline similar to that of prog rock in the nation’s cultural consciousness. It’s not that they don’t make drinks like it any more, it’s more that even in an era of hipster retro obsessions, you won’t look impressive tracking them down. The same is true of the Watney’s Party 7, a huge tin of beer designed for sharing.

6. Tesco

This supermarket giant—a rival to Sainsbury’s—has been more referenced in terms of recent scandals from the news than it has been hymned in song, although its advertising slogan “every little helps” is fairly frequently appropriated for comic effect. There is also a moment of utter genius in the song “LDN” by Lily Allen that uses their name as the basic for this excellent rhyming stanza:

“There was a little old lady, who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people from the city having lunch in the park
I believe that it’s called al fresco.”

Well worth a round of applause, I trust you’ll agree.

7. Ford Cortina

There’s something small and weedy about the kind of names used by car manufacturers in Britain over the years. The Escort, the Metro (and Mini Metro, to add insult to injury). None of them are up there with words like Mustang or Cadillac in terms of growly power. But the Ford Cortina, very much the car of choice for boy racers in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is one of the few that sounds like it has a bit of life to it. That’s why the Tom Robinson Band wrote “Gray Cortina,” as an ode to a particular kind of young driver, the closest England ever came to the kind of fellows in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Great Britain is only a small island, after all.

Tizer (Photo: AG Barr) 8. Tizer
Tizer is a red-colored fizzy drink that derived from a digestive tonic that is sort of cherry-flavored. It’s well worth seeking out, if only because it doesn’t taste quite like any other soda on the market, and it’s a good word to rhyme with, so it tends to pop up in songs. Brian Eno’s song “Back in Judy’s Jungle” references orders that have been “specially flavored with burgundy, Tizer and rye,” Morrissey’s “King Leer” uses the fruit-based fizzy drink as a form of come-on (“I tried to surprise you with vodka or Tizer”) and possibly beating them all, Elvis Costello’s “Party Party” has this memorable couplet: “Handed me a pint-pot filled with Advocaat and Tizer, and I woke up in the flowerbed fearing fertilizer.”

9. Marks and Spencer

The original version of David Bowie’s song “All the Young Dudes” (as covered expertly by Mott the Hoople) contains the line “Lucy’s stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks” using the nickname given to the shop Marks and Spencers, which is chiefly famous for two things: underwear and pre-cooked meals. Sadly, broadcasting regulations around brand names forced the Hoops to change it to “Lucy’s stealing clothes from unlocked cars” in order to guarantee radio play.

10. Dr. Martens

There are references to these classics boots of punk, skinhead and goth uniform in the songs “The Rebels” by the Cranberries, “The Happy Goth” by the Divine Comedy, “Uniforms (Corp d’Esprit)” by Pete Townshend and various bovver-boy anthems by the likes of Rancid, Sub Humans, Cockney Rejects and, well, all sorts. And of course there was this song by Alexei Sayle in The Young Ones, in which the furore Mott the Hoople had faced over mentioning brand names in a BBC broadcast seemed to be entirely forgotten.

Oh and the name of the TV series Doc Martin is a dead giveaway too.

See more:
Five Great British Soft Drinks That Americans Should Try
British Drinking: Five Great Fictional Pubs
10 Great British TV Shows of the Last 10 Years
Personality Quiz: Which British Food Should You Try?

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By Fraser McAlpine