If there’s one thing that people often know and joke about the British, is that we drive on “the wrong side of the road”! It’s often seen as an example of the British being different, a little quirky maybe or even downright contrary! Typical maybe of our ‘island mentality’. And while we are not alone in the world to drive on the left, the other countries being India, Indonesia, Ireland, Malta, Cyprus, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and recently Samoa, it does often indeed seem to be more of an island thing!
But maybe the British are just sticklers for tradition as there is evidence that the ancient Romans marched on the left and even drove wagons on the left. This ‘rule of the road’ was officially sanctioned in 1300 AD when Pope Boniface VIII declared that all pilgrims travelling to Rome should keep to the left. Based on the assumption that most people are right-handed, the idea was that by keeping to the left, it left your right hand free to use your sword in the event of an attack. It’s why medieval castles have staircases spiralling to the right going up, to make it difficult for attacking soldiers to use their swords. A left-handed swordsman would have had the same advantage as a left-footed footballer today!
It was during the French Revolution that a decree was passed, ordering traffic to keep to the “common” right. Previously, aristocrats had always driven on the left and the revolution wanted to overturn everything and break with all tradition. Napoleon later enforced the rule in all French territories and gradually the rest of Europe followed suit, to make travel between countries easier. Being an island, the UK never felt the need to do so.
But having lived many years in France, I’ve noticed it’s not only on the roads that the UK differs from France. Take bicycles for example. When I first rode a French bike and braked suddenly, I nearly flew over the handlebars. I didn’t know that on French bikes, the back brake is controlled by the right hand. In the UK, it’s the left hand that controls it! I never made that mistake again!
Another difference regards books. Look at the picture below of books on a bookshelf. What’s the difference? Answer: the titles on the spines of British books read from left to right starting at the top. French books read from left to right starting at the bottom! It makes it difficult to look for a book when your bookshelf has a mix of French and English books, as you keep having to change the position of your head!
And take windows – yes windows! In France windows open inwards making them easy to clean and easy to have geraniums on the windowsills (if you don’t have shutters). In the UK, windows all open outwards, partly because the Brits love their curtains which would interfere with opening a window inwards. However, it does make cleaning upstairs windows a near impossibility. Hence the existence of thriving window-cleaning businesses in Britain!
Finally, another area where the French (and possibly other European countries) and British approach is the complete opposite is, would you believe, in long division. Take a look at the picture where the two methods are compared, the British method is on the left and the French on the right. No wonder I stopped helping my son with his maths homework pretty early on - I hadn’t a clue what he was doing!
So, it’s not just about driving on the left. It seems we Brits do a lot of things differently. But who is “right” and who is “wrong” has yet to be decided!
Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.