Why Do British Judges Wear Wigs?

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iStock

by James Hunt

The UK's judiciary is often mocked for being out of touch with the society they represent—likely, in part, because of the faintly ridiculous wigs and robes they wear.

It's not unusual for members of high officiary to wear a uniform, of course. Priests and archbishops wear robes and hats—but unlike judges, these are mostly reserved for official and ceremonial functions. Even the Queen doesn't wear her actual crown full-time.

So why do British judges still wear wigs?

The tradition of "court dress" dates back almost 700 years, to the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377). At the time, a long robe, cowl, and cloak were standard dress for attending the royal court. At the time the material for the robes—usually ermine, taffeta, and/or silk—was given to judges in the form of a grant from the Crown. Although the colors changed over the years, the same dress was retained until 1635, when it was formalized in the "Judges Rules."

Since then, there have been small changes to the type and style of robes that judges wear, sometimes allied with changes to the court structure and sometimes not. But the wigs? They were a major addition which occurred in the 17th century, purely because the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) made them fashionable to all members of polite society.

Surprisingly, the judiciary actually resisted this change in fashion at first. Prior to the 17th century, the only requirement regarding hair was that lawyers and judges maintained theirs as clean and short. Even as late as the 1680s, portraits show judges sitting or standing wig-free. But the trend finally caught on, and even though they started to fall out of favor with the public by the 1760s, wigs remained part of the formal dress of lawyers, judges, bishops, and coachmen.

Although the requirement for bishops to wear wigs was dropped in the early 1800s, the tradition persists in the courts—and with good reasons. Despite the high cost and associated discomfort, some people argue that court dress enforces the authority of the law, by setting them apart visually from the public. Others say it prevents favoritism, ensuring that the opinion of a jury cannot be influenced by the dress of a barrister.

In more recent times, the requirements have been substantially relaxed, and the use of robes and wigs is mostly seen during criminal cases and at formal events. It's possible that they'll be discarded entirely within our lifetimes. For now, just enjoy the strange mixture of absurdity and impressiveness that accompanies these strange traditions—ones which have persisted for centuries without anyone being entirely clear as to why.

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Why Do So Many News Anchors Sound Alike?

News anchors have mastered the art of being linguistically neutral.
News anchors have mastered the art of being linguistically neutral.
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

No matter which channel you tune into or what local broadcast you receive, news anchors share one common trait beyond professional attire and perfect hair. They tend to sound exactly the same, from their cadence to enunciation to a completely curious lack of a regional accent. How does that happen?

Broadcasters didn’t always sound so geographically neutral. In the early part of the 20th century, many radio personalities and performers adopted what was known as a Mid-Atlantic accent, or a blend of mannered British and the East Coast dialect of the United States. This polished, proper method of speaking was popular in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and on radio because it signaled some kind of upper-class education and erudition. Thanks to America’s infatuation with England, sounding even vaguely British made people sound intelligent. Pundits like William F. Buckley Jr. carried the Mid-Atlantic torch even as it fell out of favor in entertainment.

The more contemporary practice of sounding linguistically neutral is often referred to as having a General American accent—which is a bit misleading, since there’s really not much of an accent at all. Also referred to as Standard American, Broadcast English, or Network English, General American was a term first used in the 1920s and '30s by linguists who wanted to isolate a more widespread accent than the New England or Southern dialects. The scholar George Philip Krapp used the phrase in his 1925 book The English Language in America; linguist John Kenyon referred to it in his 1930 title American Pronunciation, where he insisted that 90 million Americans spoke General American.

As the century wore on, a wider range of regional accents were recognized, and it became almost impossible to generalize between New England, Southern, and General American. Though some linguists disagree on the definition of General American, it’s still largely considered a speaking voice that lacks regional flair.

So why do news anchors rely on it? One of the biggest reasons is to keep their employment opportunities open. Local anchors who deliver the nightly news for affiliate stations are often vagabonds, taking jobs across the country, and those different networks prefer a General American accent. If an anchor hailing from the South committed to delivering the day’s top stories in a Southern accent, for example, it’s not likely a New York station would feel viewers could warm to them. Likewise, a Brooklyn accent might sound peculiar when Los Angeles residents want a rundown of local headlines.

But an accent is only a portion of a broadcaster’s delivery. At broadcasting schools, television journalists are trained to speak at a moderate speed and enunciate each word clearly. (Whether they realize it or not, young broadcasters may also start out emulating their news anchor heroes who had impeccable diction, like Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel.) No letters are dropped. Sentences are composed for ease of reading off a teleprompter.

Plain speaking also needs to fit whatever footage is being shown while the anchor is talking. Uneven modulation could be distracting, though some anchors do choose to emphasize words by drawing them out (“muur-der”) or adopt a more somber tone when reporting on tragic events.

Some anchors have also reported being more careful with their speech because broadcast microphones are often unforgiving. Words beginning with P tend to pop, for example. Broadcasting school drills out the kind of casual and conversational voice that doesn’t translate well to a newscast.

Of course, some linguists believe there’s no such thing as being totally free of an accent. A Southerner trying to remove any trace of a drawl is going to sound different than someone from New England attempting to do the same. We may not notice simply because humans aren’t that great at recognizing more subtle accents, especially our own. Broadcasters may sound alike in large part because they all enunciate and attempt to achieve articulatory precision. Few anchors will say “dubya.” They will say “double-you.” But that occasional “dubya” is what makes speech patterns sound different.

And that’s all the news we have today.

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Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?

Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, 2020 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 94 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But in June, Her Majesty typically parades through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour (though this year's fête has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic).

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or colours—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

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