We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Why a traveller loves Uber

I hate taxis. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Loathe them. Detest them.

This is a fairly common feeling amongst frequent travellers. You arrive in a foreign and unfamiliar place on a plane or train. You are tired. You are not familiar with local prices. You are not familiar with local customs. You probably know the name of the hotel or other place that you want to go to, but you possibly don’t know where it is or what is the best route to take you there.

So you get into a taxi. It is just you and the driver. You want him (or her, but it never is) to take you to your destination. You are putting yourself in a sealed and locked car with someone you have never met before and, and who you will never do business with again. He doesn’t know who you are and never will, and you don’t know who he is, and never will. In the event that you have grounds for a complaint, it might be possible to identify him through his medallion number or licence number or something, but you are not going to think to do that (being very tired) and even if you do, complaining later will involve procedures, languages, laws and customs that you are not familiar with. A driver who takes advantage of you is extremely unlikely to suffer any consequences whatsoever.

As a consequence of all this, there are an absolutely endless number of ways in which taxis drivers will take advantage of foreign travellers – particularly ones who have just arrived at airports and railway stations. These vary from mild dishonesty to outright criminality. All of the following have happened to me, at one time or another. Vaguely from least bad to worst bad.

  • The taxi driver takes a long route, so increasing the fare
  • The taxi driver flatly refuses to take you where you ask to be taken, but decides to take you to a different destination entirely, because he is being paid a commission by a different hotel/bus company/museum/airport/warlord/country than the one whose services you want to use. (Insisting that he does not understand you for linguistic reasons when he clearly does often happens in this and many other scams)
  • Taxi driver refuses to understand expressions like “What will it cost me to go to x?” or “Turn on the meter” in English (or indeed any other language) and is completely unable to understand gestures like pointing to your wallet, or pointing to the meter, or any such thing. At least, not until the end of the journey, at which point he will insist on a fare four times what is reasonable.
  • The taxi driver agrees on a fare, but at the end of the journey insists that he did not agree on that fare, and asks for a different amount of money. The fact that “fifteen” sounds very similar to “fifty” in English, and similar, can be particularly effective here.
  • Having agreed on a fare, the taxi driver drives you to a point in the middle of nowhere – but worryingly close to the Syrian border – and insists that you give him more money than was previously agreed upon, and refuses to go anywhere further and tries very hard to prevent you from finding another taxi driver until you agree
  • The meter is rigged. When a passenger who does not know better – a foreigner or someone otherwise from out of town – gets into the taxi, the driver pushes a button on the meter which causes it to charge three times as much as it does regularly
  • At the end of the journey, you only have a banknote that is many times the fare, and the driver insists that he has no change.
  • At the end of the journey, you pay your fare, and the taxi driver gives you forged money as change
  • At the end of the journey, the fare is 90 pesos. You give the driver a 100 peso note. He shows you the note you gave him back at you – a 10 peso note, indicating that you gave him the wrong amount. You give him another 100 peso note, failing to realise that he switched the notes and you have just paid him 90 pesos too much. (You are particularly vulnerable to this when it is dark, you have just got off a long flight, and the local money is unfamiliar. Actually, this is true of most of the above, but I was particularly annoyed with myself when I fell for this one that time in Buenos Aires. For the record, the forged money was also in Buenos Aires).

These scams all have to do with one of three things: the choice of the route, the setting of the fare, and the exchange of money. When I use Uber, all three of these issues are solved, utterly. Firstly, Uber’s satnav/GPS system tells the driver what route to take, and I as a passenger am shown the route on a map. If the driver diverts too far from that route without a good reason, I make a simple complaint, my money is refunded to me, the driver suffers reputational damage, and he does not get paid. The fare is decided by a third party (whose terms and conditions the driver has agreed to) and quoted to me in advance, either as a flat amount or a fare per mile. The “meter” is controlled by that third party, and cannot be rigged. And I pay the money to a third party, and the money is essentially held in escrow until I have completed my journey and have said I am happy with it. The driver knows he gets paid if he does his job properly, and I know that there will be no attempt to scam me over money. Because I know he is not going to scam me and he knows I am not going to scam him (and anyway, because there is recourse if one of us does) there is no reason for us to not trust one another, and we are therefore invariably polite and friendly to each other. Which makes my day nicer, and very likely his also.

I am extremely reluctant to get in a taxi in a foreign city, full stop. However, I will use Uber any time.

69 comments to Why a traveller loves Uber

  • Having worked as a cab driver for about three years I have NEVER screwed any of my customers in in any of the described fashions.

  • I’ve experienced the second bullet point. In my case, the driver tried hard to take me to a drugs venue, insisting that he could not distinguish between ‘Joint’ and the word ‘Junction’ (which had figured in my route instructions) . Luckily I was travelling light, so had my luggage in the back seat with me, not in the boot, so could get out of the car at a corner. Walking in an unknown part of a strange city around midnight did not please me much, but I had the sense to realise it was safer than waiting to reach the approaching end of the road. Luckily, I knew just enough to realise I was being taken a very different route to any that was possible for my true destination.

    Sometimes, of course, things can be less threatening than they seem. A woman I know got in a taxi to a U.S. airport after a conference. Half-way there, her driver pulled over by another taxi and (because he did not find it convenient to go to the airport at that moment, for some reason), sold her as a fare after some quick negotiation with the other driver. A male college was sharing the taxi with her “or I might have wondered what kind of sale was happening”, as she explained it to me later.

    Before Uber, one strategy was to find a taxi company based near your destination and arrange for them to meet you at the airport or rail station (at a planned time or in response to a phone call) somewhere other than the main taxi rank.

    One side point: although the native language of the European city where I had my most interesting taxi experience was not English, it is one of those countries where you walk into a shop and say “Hello” and the local replies in perfect English. That the taxi driver could pretend to such bad English is telling you something about him. Should I have worked harder to conceal that? Some German ladies have recently experienced things that make my adventure utterly trivial, and one of them have – and many of their leaders – said how embarrassed she felt at putting certain details in the public domain – but not quite the details I was expecting to embarras her. At least I know I can trust my fellow commenters to be as indirect in answering as I in asking. Here in Scotland, the police have issued a strong statement about the legal fate that awaits those who use social media to mention such matters.

    Finally, as I type, the BBC are reporting that a Michigan killer of six was an Uber driver. (I think they would also have reported it if he were a conventional taxi driver; I’ve a notion some guy in the UK with a shotgun not so long ago was reported to work as a taxi driver. And the phrasing of the report seemed – rather by accident – to imply that those he killed were not his fares.) So nothing’s perfect.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Michael, that’s very interesting (as is Niall’s comment). It raises a question in my mind: You mention a third party who holds the money. But if an adjustment to the route is necessary for some reason, that would mean that you owe Uber somewhat more than you must have paid in advance to the escrow-holder.

    So my question is, where is the third party located? Does he ride with you? No, that wouldn’t make sense. Does he go with the driver to pick you up and collect the money, but then not ride with you? I had the impression also that you make the full payment when you get out of the taxi, but perhaps that’s something you never implied. Anyway, I’m confused. ??

    But thanks for the writeup, just the same. Entertaining to read, though I’m sure frustrating or anger-making as the dickens for you, and also a warning for the Innocent, of course.

    PS. Niall, you mentioned in another discussion that people mispernonce you all the time, so I will ask: Are you properly NYE-all, or KNEE-el (Neil or even Neal, as in Ryan O’Neal)? Or something else? :>)

  • Patrick Crozier

    Excellent post.

  • Rob Fisher

    Leslie Bates, good for you. But Michael has met more cab drivers than you. And in the kind of places where ripping off tourists is routine. What I find interesting is that Uber’s methods work even in the places where ripping off tourists is routine.

    Whenever someone tries to argue that Uber is unsafe because it is not licensed by some government they need to be pointed to this article.

  • Rob Fisher

    Julie: Uber has your credit card details already and can just bill whatever the amount, taking into account time and distance, at the end of the journey. You pay Uber (the 3rd party). They pay the driver. You don’t need to *do* anything to pay Uber, it is automatic.

  • When you start receiving a service for which the final charge is uncertain and hand over a credit card, the merchant does an “authorisation” of an amount of money that the merchant considers likely to cover the largest likely transaction size. This amount of money is then taken from that customer’s credit limit (or available balance, in the case of a debit card). The merchant is guaranteed that a final charge of this amount or smaller will not be declined, although the cardholder may dispute the charge later using the chargeback process. At the end of the service, the charge is finalised and the unused portion of the authorisation is returned to the cardholder. Usually the final charge is the only thing that appears on the statement, so it is not always obvious to the cardholder what has happened. This process is used routinely by hotels and car rental companies, sometimes by bars, restaurants, and petrol stations, and definitely by uber. I think “money held in escrow” probably is a good description of it.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Leslie Bates, to be an honest man in a milieu in which dishonesty is common is doubly praiseworthy. Most of the cab drivers I’ve met have been fine, and I can think of one to whom I’ll be forever grateful, but unfortunately dishonesty is more common among cab drivers, especially those who work near international airports, than it is among those who do many other jobs. The reason for this is exactly as Michael Jennings has stated: a relative lack of bad consequences for bad behaviour and of good consequences for good behaviour. Until Uber and similar services came along the only real tool available (to either passengers or drivers) to attempt to replicate the good incentives that govern fields where repeat custom is common was for drivers to work for a big name company, with a reputation to lose. But of course there are many good reasons why a driver might want to work for a small company or be independent. And most taxi companies are not international, so brand name reputation doesn’t protect foreigners, exactly the people who most need it.

    It looks to me as if Uber (or similar apps present or future) helps the drivers as much as the passengers. No longer will the honest drivers lose out to the dishonest ones. It’s a useful thing to any business to be able to truly show a customer that the customer can choose them with confidence.

  • Bryce Hoult

    Uber operate differently in different places. They always want to avoid taxi laws so in many places that means they are a private hire service and quote the exact price in advance, regardless of the route actually taken.

    In Russia, where all my bet experience is so far, they operate like taxis, with a pick up fee and pet km and per minute charges. The actual route taken and the time are recorded on the Uber web site, available to see after. In fact it is also emailed to you.

    I’m in Florence now. Interesting that the Uber prices are almost exactly ten times the prices in Miscow although other things such as food are similar price.

  • Bruce Hoult

    Gah! At the typos. For some reason on my phone I’m getting black text on a very dark blue background and am typing effectively blind.

  • The taxi driver takes a long route, so increasing the fare

    I experienced this in Eindhoven, or at least an attempt to. I got out of the railway station and – in the days before Google Maps – asked a taxi driver if he knew where the Pullmann hotel was (it’s about 300 metres away, walking). A chap whose ancestry was definitely not Dutch started waving me towards his car and telling me that it was “far away, about 10km”. At this, another taxi driver who might well have been of Dutch ancestry intervened and told me it was a short walk thataway and started to berate the first driver for trying to rip me off. I was extremely grateful for this intervention.

    At the end of the journey, you only have a banknote that is many times the fare, and the driver insists that he has no change.

    Some prick did this to me in Moscow on my first time there when I didn’t know enough Russian to argue. I gave him 1,000 roubles for an 800 rouble fare, and with a sneering smirk on his face told me he didn’t have change. There isn’t a taxi driver in Russia who doesn’t have 200 roubles on him. I had no choice, and had to pay.

    Firstly, Uber’s satnav/GPS system tells the driver what route to take, and I as a passenger am shown the route on a map.

    I had my first poor experience with this the other day: driving from centre of Paris to the outskirts where I live at 2.8 times the rate due to the time, my driver – who was following a route on his iPhone – took me way off course. I couldn’t be bothered to argue in French, particularly as it was so late, but the route added at least a third to the distance. I gave him a shitty score, but wondered whether it was the driver’s fault or the GPS/App.

  • Leslie, almost all my bad taxi experiences were abroad. In the UK, I’ve had no alarming experiences and only one bizarre one: returning on an international red eye, I offered my driver his large fee in mostly cash plus cheque for what I lacked in UK cash (plus cheque guarantee card, glimpse of passport to show I was me, known address, etc.) but he instantly developed a fury that it was not all in cash. Eventually, the police arrived and ordered him to take my cheque – suddenly he was calm and willing to do so. I never had a clue what that was about. Based on my own experiences, I would have no difficulty believing that a healthy majority of UK taxi drivers do not do any of what the post describes.

    Julie, it is Knee-longishA-ll because I am Scottish; were I Irish, the same spelling would be pronounced Nye-shortishA-l. At least it begins with N, one of three consonants which do not aspirate in Gaelic, so I am properly both called and am addressed by that same pronunciation. If you’ve ever wondered why a Shawn may be a Sean or what the relation is between Mairi and Vari, it’s about whether the nominative or vocative form was taken into English and frozen (occasionally, a given family took the same name with pronunciation of one form and spelling of the other). These days, it’s a very rare purist who would use the proper case of a Gaelic name in English speech; even the natz will probably not try and make that required. 🙂

    The thought occurs, however, that the custom gives another way to have a pseudonym that isn’t really. If you are Mairi to your friends and blog as Vari on the web, or maybe merely if you’re Shona to your friends but blog as Seonaidh or Ally professionally but Eilidh in private life, the NSA may have no trouble finding you but when the twitter-mob make you their hatee-for-a-day, the effects may not spill beyond the blogosphere. I use a variant of this myself (though it’s not by misspelling my first name as you’d likely guess first): both the name you know me by and the variant you’d need to find my professional web presence are legitimately mine by old Scottish custom; I use the latter professionally, merely so anyone seeking to buy my abilities is undistracted by non-professionally-relevant web stuff such as this post.

    Thanks for asking, so giving me the opportunity to witter on about stuff I expect is of little interest to most anyone but me. 🙂

  • Ferox

    Without disputing any of the author’s experiences, let me add another anecdotal data point. When I was 14 (therefore a long long time ago), I flew to a city to stay with a friend of my mother’s while she dealt with an emergency. Due to flubbed communications, when I arrived at the airport, in a city where I knew absolutely no-one, there was nobody there to meet me. It was well after midnight, no buses running, and all I had was an address.

    A helpful taxi driver drove me 15 miles across town on nothing but the promise that he would be paid when we arrived at our destination, as I had no money on me.

    Is that the sort of thing that an Uber driver would even be empowered to do, given the way that Uber payments are structured?

  • Mr Ed

    A friend of my Dad’s in London using cabs would often ask a Black Cab to take him to Bow St Magistrates Court which was quite close to his workplace, in the hope that the driver would think that he was a Metropolitan Police officer and therefore liable to report him to the Public Carriage Office (a part of the Met) which at that time regulated Black Cabs, and so be particularly careful to be honest.

    As a Private Hire Driver (minicab) when a student, we had fixed prices quoted in advance by the Bookman, who radioed us to clients, and a local authority to make our lives hard if anyone tried anything. I simply don’t recognise the habits of cab drivers that Michael has illustrated as being in any way like the work that I did. Mind you, we also had a contract with a local prison for court runs, funerals etc. Lousy tippers.

    Taxi drivers are dishonest if they are dishonest people and presumably if they think that they can get away with it.

  • Is that the sort of thing that an Uber driver would even be empowered to do, given the way that Uber payments are structured?

    An Uber driver would have no way of knowing you wanted to go anywhere: you register your credit card details with Uber at the same time you sign up for their service, and you use the App to call the cab. They don’t rank up, or drive around waiting to be hailed outside of the App.

  • Bruce Hoult

    Of course. They can simply turn it off and not be an Uber driver for that trip.

    Many work for several different companies anyway.

    Though you’d never have to do such a thing unless your credit card was over limit or something.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    This can happen in places you would not expect. Many years ago, a one-time collegue of my father, visiting from England, took the train from Montreal to Toronto. On exiting Union Station he got into a cab, standing in the rank. In his very English voice, he asked the cabbie “How much to the Royal York?”. “Oh quite a ways, at least $20.00”. This was when the start-upo charge was about a dollar…..
    Luckily, the man had checked a map: the Royal York is just across the street from Union Station and they are connected by an underground pathway.
    He complained to the city, but I don’t think there was any result…

  • Mary Contrary

    I travel only a small fraction of what Michael does, but at every month or two, still more often than many people. I fully agree with everything he says. I’ve personally experienced the first, second, third, fourth and seventh problems – and on one occasion I believe also the sixth (rigged meter; on the way back to Stockholm Arlanda airport, of all places); it’s hard to be sure about the last, but a fare over £200 for a forty kilometer ride certainly came as a surprise.

    No more: I use Uber wherever possible and, like Michael, have never had a bad experience. Even in Paris the drivers are polite.

  • Tim: If that happens, I would strongly recommend sending an e-mail complaint to Uber as well as giving the driver a low rating. As a minimum, you will get a refund, and the driver will probably be given a black mark of some kind by Uber as well.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, Michael and Rob, for the explanations. I see. Gosh, paying taxi fares with credit cards! Whoever heard of such a thing! Of course the last time I took a cab was in the early 1800’s, and it was strictly on a cash-and-be-carried basis. And in my cab-taking day it was all either Checker or the Green Cab company, at least in the Chicago area.

    Niall Knee-Awll, thanks very much for the pronunciation lesson. (Have I got the “-all” part right? or is it more like Knee-ale?) Come to think of it, that’s also Mr. Hirsi-Ali’s first name. Does he pronounce it similarly? I ought to hunt up a UT and hear what they call him.

    Interesting also about Sean/Shawn. I always took it that the correct spelling is “Sean”; “Shawn” only for the Gaelically-challenged. Well, those of us cursed with intellectual hubris (not to mention insistence on correctness) must expect the feathers of the crow pasted generously about the mandibles from time to time. And let’s face it, when you gotta eat you gotta eat.

    As to your final example of “Seonaidh” and “Eilidh,” I haven’t run across either of them and would be flummoxed if I had; I have been flummoxed with somewhat similar names, though. As for “Shona,” I would naturally and instinctively go, Aha! Probaby Hebrew. (Shoshana for instance. Oddly enough the Young Miss is a Susan. Not because she’s half-Jewish, but because as an adult I fell in love with the name I’d hated as a kid. Go figure!)

    Thank you very much for the introduction to Gaelic names and the translation from spelling to pronunciation. :>))

  • Julie near Chicago

    Niall, if you’re pronounced like Mr. Ferguson, you’re definitely a Neil. In American and I guess even in British, although in Scottish (as opposed to Gaelic *g*) I can’t say. :>)

  • Julie, you are right about Shawn – I wrote that phonetically to distinguish the vocative pronunciation from the nominative spelling. Vari is spelt that way by some Welsh girls of that name, but only to give their English neighbours a chance of saying it more or less right; the correct spelling is Mhairi but a V gives a better clue to the aspirated-M sound than anything else one could write in English. As for my name, well, I once worked in a Dutch town whose name I never could say correctly. I tried it one way: “No”, my Dutch colleagues would reply, and then say it again. I said it another way – as they did, I thought. “No”, my Dutch colleagues would reply, that’s not it either – and then they said it again. We could keep up this game for minutes at a time. The consonants were OK but saying the two vowels the way the Dutch thought they should be said was not so easy.

    Similarly, I’m not sure either of your suggested forms of my name get how you say the diphthong quite perfectly right. 🙂 – but if you say Knee, followed by Ah followed by the l, you’re sure to be more than close enough. Long before the cry bullies gave me an almost physical distaste for turning tiny deviations from perfection into micro-aggressions that needed macro-punishments, I had practical reasons for accepting any well-meant saying or spelling of my name without comment unless anyone actually asked; life’s too short. 🙂 I’m sure Niall Ferguson does not fuss, any more than I do, about the vowel, but he may, depending on family background, himself treat it as merely an alternatively-spelt Neil.

    Mairi is of course is Gaelic-icised Mary, one of the many variants of Hebrew-derived names; it is said Mah – ree in the nominative and (very close to) Vari in the vocative – but in the real world, each family accustomed to bestow the name long ago picked one or other for case-less English use – more often nominative in Scotland, vocative in Wales. I don’t recall a Shona in the bible; that common Scots name may be Celtic-derived. Susan is a nice name, though, probably because of C.S.Lewis, I give a slight preference to Lucy.

    Thank you for giving me the chance to drone on about myself and my name. I’ll now try and resist the urge to add still more information. I hope others in the thread are not too unspeakably bored by this digression into nomenclature and/or can benefit from the not-really-a-pseudonym bit of the discussion.

  • Actually from there

    @Mary Contrary, part of me really wants to believe that the £200 taxi fare to the airport in Stockholm was ‘right’, as I need to believe that I can still get into a taxi in Scandinavia and not have to worry about being ripped off.

    The one time I was in Malaysia, there was a desk in KL airport where you told them what hotel you were in (or whatever) and paid in advance. They then gave you a voucher/chit that you gave to the driver. A very good idea, as that first impression of a country is so important and too many countries get off to a bad start when a visitor’s first interaction with the locals involves getting creamed.

    On the Gaelic names stuff, the wrong spelling/pronunciation rot has already set in even in Ireland, where I’m from. The oldest Irish-living-in-Ireland Shaun/Shawn that I’ve met must be about 40, so it’s been going on for a while. My daughter, who’s 12, has a classmate (Irish-born of Irish parents) called Caitlin whose name is pronounced as if it were Kate-Lynn (à l’américaine, so to speak), which I actually find quite sad and which won’t serve her well, as in an Irish context it would be a pretty strong marker (for now at least) of the ‘wrong’ sort of social background, a bit like being named after a soap opera character.

  • Actually from there

    FYI, the standard English transliteration of Caitlín is Kathleen, which isn’t perfect (Irish doesn’t do the ‘th’ sound) but gets the vowels right.

  • In general, the existence of all these taxi scams has led to regulation, in which taxi drivers are strictly licence and strictly subject to rules. The meter must be turned on. The fare must be that on the meter. The meter must be regularly inspected. There are clear channels of complaint if the driver does not obey the rules. Many developed country taxi markets are like this.

    The trouble in this case is invariably regulatory capture. You create a privileged class of licensed drivers or licensed taxi or taxi medallion owners, and these lobby the regulators to behave in their interests. Typically this means you get a restricted number of taxis on the road, and high fares. The drivers become quite precious in their behaviour. (Try getting a black cab in certain parts of London, or getting a black cab driver to take you to certain parts of London). Uber gets rid of the justification for having many of these regulations, too, which explains the hatred for Uber felt by many traditional taxi cartels. I was tempted to write about this in this post as well, but this has been pretty much done to death by other people already, I think.

    (The arrangement where there is a flat fare and possibly prepayment and a voucher from the airport exists in a few places. One has to know how it works, though, and there are sometimes other taxi drivers at the same airport who are not subject to it, so it is not always ideal. )

  • Slartibartfarst

    @Michael Jennings:
    As a seasoned business traveller myself, I can attest to having been close to having many similar – some identical – experiences to those bad ones that you described, together with some you hadn’t met.

    However, recollection on my part is mostly of many much different and mostly more enjoyable Taxi experiences, so that I generally quite enjoy them. I even made a lifetime friend of one of the Bangkok taxi drivers who tried to scam me (and failed) and he has even sometimes put me and my wife up in his house when we have been travelling in Thailand!
    I must have had thousands of Taxi rides in London (UK), Los Angeles (California, US), Hong Kong (China), Sydney and Melbourne (Australia), Auckland and Wellington (New Zealand), various cities in The Philippines, and Bangkok (Thailand).

    Most of my taxi rides have been either between Airport and Hotel somewhere, or between client offices within a city. Being a cautious sort, my travel planning generally included research/study of the documented local taxi regulations (Lonely Planet guides were an especially useful resource) and controls (if there were any) and how the scams and physically harmful robberies were operated, and I would ask colleagues to share their experiences with me. So, though I might often find a scam or a violent robbery being about to be attempted, I usually was able to avoid or counter it, and in fact I can’t recall having ever been successfully had by a taxi driver.

    I reckon that you are probably spot-on about Uber. The Uber approach makes a taxi market suddenly become a “perfect” market, in economics terms. By securing the pricing, transaction and interchange and settlement process(es)for the taxi service, making it consistent and delivered via a trusted and independent third party expressly set up for that purpose, it has forced a disruptive free-market transformation upon the sector and the Taxi organisations which have for far too long maintained oligopoly positions. It’s a bit like SWIFT to the forex market.

    Uber has made the market more honest and open by definition and in practice, as you have observed.

  • Julie near Chicago


    OK fine, I get it. I think if we Midwesterners only HEARD your name properly pernonced, we’d spell it “Neel.” Probably somebody in the U.S. has that as a first name, but if so I’ve never met him or her. *g* But the best friends of the Young Miss und Herr are a Mr. & Mrs. Neelds, pronounced exactly as you describe till you get to the “d.”

    If Samizdatistas aren’t tough enough to withstand an interesting and informative, but too slight, side-trip, then they are not of such stout stuff as I had imagined. They are more like Shoshana, the Lily, or Susanna or Susan in English. Although if you think the Young Miss is a fragile flower, you ought to meet her. HAH!

    Although Lucy is a very good name also. Because she is an 8-year-old girl in my favorite thriller series, and the young mistress of a large, drooling, fearsome, and utterly adoring male Neapolitan Mastiff, “Sweetie” by name, who doubles as a guard-dog. She and her Manhattan Homicide D.A. father Butch Karp, and her Bodyguard and ex-Rape Bureau Chief mother Marlene Ciampi, being Jewish and Italian by heritage, respectively, are the main characters in the excellent first 13 or 14 of Robert B. Tanenbaum’s series. Read and re-read, and worn-out copies replaced. They were m family for awhile after my Honey died. The Young Miss thought I should have a pet, so told me to choose one or more cats or dogs. So we went to the animal shelter, and my sweet Lucy, originally named “Feather” for some unfathomable reason, came home with me. When she & I moved in with The Children, I got so I could never remember which name was whose off the top of my had, so they ended sharing both names. 🙁 Cancer took her last fall. She was 15.

    And with that more-than-slight excursion,

    It’s been a pleasure — thanks. Personally, I can take as much as you can dish out, but I do see your concern. :>)) And my apologies to Samizdatistas for these and other excursions…I do try not to stray too far O/T, but one thing leads to another sometimes.

  • Actually from there

    My recollection in KL is that when you followed the ‘taxi’ signs you ended up at this desk, so you didn’t really need to know how it works. In fact, a bit more familiarity with the layout of the airport might be a positive disadvantage. I’m sure it must exist in a few places, as it’s got pretty obvious PR benefits for the country. I can’t recollect coming across it elsewhere myself, but I may have missed it!

  • Julie, you are right about Shawn – I wrote that phonetically to distinguish the vocative pronunciation from the nominative spelling.

    I grew up, in Wales, assuming the only way to spell it was Shaun. I was a bit surprised to later find most people spell it Sean.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Niall, I can’t let this go just yet. One more question: ‘“Seonaidh” and “Eilidh,”‘ are “Shona” and “Ally.” So is “Shona” what we non-Gaels sometimes mean when we name our girls “Shawna”? If so, I’d find that very believable, since I once wrote a list of all the versions of the ancient name of “John” that I could think of — as I remember there were something like 26 of them — and “Sean””Shawn” was one. I Looked It Up, and wherever I looked confirmed my suspicion. And after all, it seemed pretty likely that “Sean” is just “Jean” (French) with the sh sound instead of the soft j.

    And, –a leap in the dark– could “Eilidh,” or Ally, then be Gaelic for “Alice” = Alicia pronounced “Althea” in Spanish, and a name in its own right in American?

    This really is a fascinating thread in the discussion.

  • Tim: If that happens, I would strongly recommend sending an e-mail complaint to Uber as well as giving the driver a low rating. As a minimum, you will get a refund, and the driver will probably be given a black mark of some kind by Uber as well.

    Yes, I should probably have done that. Too late now, though.

  • One of the funniest experiences I’ve had with a taxi was upon arrival at Saigon airport:

    Me: “How much to Hotel X?”
    Taxi driver: “1 million dong”
    Me (negotiating): “How about 50,000?”
    Taxi driver: “Okay, hop in!”

  • My funny Vietnamese taxi experience occurred in 2010. I had one of the very first iPads, and at that point they were so new that this got comments and exclamations in London – let alone Hanoi. I got into a taxi in Hanoi, told the driver where I wanted to go, and watched him set off in the opposite direction. After about half a block, I held up the iPad, which had one marker showing where we had started, another showing where I wanted to go, and a blue dot showing we were going away from this place rather than towards it. The driver’s face went white, and he did a sharp U-turn at the next intersection. It was hilarious.

  • Julie near Chicago

    That’s interesting, Tim! I’ve seen it spelled “Shaun,” but I certainly didn’t know it has a formal home! Well, you Welsh are also Celts, aren’t you? Do you know if either you or the Gaelic branch of the family had the name before the Norman Conquest, or before the Roman Invasion?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tim and Michael: An LOL!! apiece! 🙂

  • Also, that time in Pune when I was walking past a restaurant and a young Indian couple were getting out of an auto rickshaw (a three wheeled taxi with the front of a motorbike). They were having a discussion with the driver in Marathi that I did not understand. As I approached, the female half of the couple turned, looked at me, and asked in English if I had change for 100 rupees. This was a ridiculously small sum of money (about £1), but as it happened I did, and I gave her my change. The poisonous look I got from the driver makes me laugh even now.

  • Well, you Welsh are also Celts, aren’t you?

    We are (although I saw “we”, but my parents are English) supposedly the original Britons that got shoved westwards by various invading forces.

    Do you know if either you or the Gaelic branch of the family had the name before the Norman Conquest, or before the Roman Invasion?

    I have no idea, I’m afraid. I do know that Welsh throws up some odd similarities with French, but not with English, eg. bridge = pont/pont, church = eglwys/eglise. Although Welsh is supposedly one of the oldest languages in Europe, up there with Basque.

  • Actually from there

    Seán is derived from the Norman-French ‘Jean’. There is another, older form of ‘John’ in Irish, which is Eóin.

    My guess would be that the Welsh ‘eglwys’ comes from the Latin ‘ecclesia’ independently of the French ‘église’. They obviously share a common origin.

  • Actually from there

    Oops, hit ‘post’ too soon.

    The similar Irish word ‘eaglais’ long predates the Normans.

  • Julie, I’m happy to talk names until/unless PerryDeH, or anyone similarly entitled, tells us namers to find our own thread. (However that’s not a _request_ for more questions.)

    I think you are spot on about Shona / Seaonaidh. If I think of it as a feminine form of Shaun / Sean (as Johanna is feminine John), then I recognise than Sean is Celtic-style John and the ultimate origin is indeed the Hebrew name.

    Eilidh is pronounced Ai-Lay. Thus it is a long way from Alice – but who knows.

    At risk of confusing mid-westerners with Texans, I think you’re saying Niall could be pronounced Nee-y’ll as in “y’ll good now?” 🙂 If so, not bad (the diphthong is in fact subtler).

    Thanks for the Lucy book-ref. I’ll look at it.

    Welsh has many load words from Latin since, as Tim says, it is ancient British. Some were lost during the dark ages – you can sometimes date old Welsh historical records to a century by their presence or absence – but many remain.

    I live on a dark-ages battle site between the (north-east Scotland) Picts (goidelic celts) and the (south-west Scotland) Britons (brythonic celts). So, yes the Welsh and three of the four groups that divided modern Scotland in the dark ages were celts. However the historical record shows these celts were significantly worse (or I could have written, even worse) than the anglo-saxons at agreeing with each other and cooperating on anything.

  • Actually from there

    Niall, we don’t know an awful lot about the Picts – and particularly about their language – but they almost certainly weren’t Goidelic (i.e. Gaelic-speaking) Celts.

    (Sorry for gate-crashing BTW. I think I’ve commented here once before (on an Ireland-related thread, hence the name, which my computer hasn’t forgotten after all this time…)

  • To which I would add that Basque (as a European language, at least) pretty clearly predates the Celtic languages. There were Basque speakers in the Pyrenees and northern Spain well before the Celts arrived there. Many Basque areas were then overrun with Celtic speakers, and these areas gained many non-linguistic aspects of Celt culture, some of which spread to the areas that continued to speak Basque. Then the Romans came, and modern Spain was overrrun by Latin speakers, who are there to this day. The Celtic languages were completely wiped out in Spain, but Basque persists in the Pyrenees and nearby, as did some of the other cultural aspects of Celtic culture. Thus people today often see Basque culture and Celtic culture as having cultural similarities, and (erroneously) conclude that there are linguistic similarities too.

  • Alex

    It is very difficult to determine what the Picts were. There are theories ranging from them being Brythonic Celts (almost certainly not Goidelic as “Actually from there” states above) to Semites; a remnant population of the ancient Indo-Europeans known as the “Horse tamers” (a people thought to have expanded out of the steppe c3000 BC displacing Neolithic peoples); even a remnant population of Neolithic people indigenous (at least, indigenous since the beginning of the epoch).

    Part of the problem is that the Celts are perhaps one of the most diverse ethnic groups ever described. Whereas many ethnic groups are defined relatively recently (19th century) and in a very specific way, the Celts are a legendary group mainly defined by their non-Hellenic, non-Roman and non-Germanic identity. In other words, groups that spoke “similar” languages that were definitely not Greek, not Roman and probably not Germanic. In that sense the Picts have long been considered Celtic but whether they really were Celtic in the same way that the Irish or even the Welsh are Celtic is very debatable.

    I say legendary above because clearly the Celts are not mythical, the Celtic languages are clearly more related to each other than to other language groups and the peoples who traditionally spoke such languages or that still do (Dwi’n medri siarad Cymraeg – yn tipyn bach) are thought to be reasonably closely related too. It seems likely however that many of the speakers of the language were not ethnic Celts, and perhaps all who are self-described ethnic Celts today are actually ancient cultural assimilators as perhaps 10,000 years from now the ethnic English individuals might be pretty uncommon but language(s) descended from English will likely be widespread. That reminds me of the way that the Amish call everyone else “English”.

    On Uber, it isn’t available where I live. Despite being an infrequent user of taxis I have experienced some of the issues that Michael lists in the original post.

  • Alex

    actually ancient cultural assimilators

    That should be “actually descendants of ancient cultural assimilators […]”. Oops.

  • The Celtic languages are clearly Indo-European and are clearly related to each other. Basque is clearly not Indo-European. As for Pictish, I don’t think anyone convincingly knows. There are Basques and Celts who are still around, which does make it a lot easier.

    “It seems likely however that many of the speakers of the language were not ethnic Celts..”

    And what does “ethnic ” actually mean? Not much, in truth.

  • Actually from there

    I presume that by “not ethnic Celts”, Alex means that they were descended from populations who had been living in what are now termed the Celtic countries before either the Celts (however many of them may actually have made the trip) and/or their languages arrived.

  • Alisa

    I seem to remember that too 🙂

  • Alex

    Michael, I actually posted my comment before reading yours (I had the tab open for a while before reading all the comments) so please don’t read my comment as some kind of disagreement with yours. Indeed your comment is almost identical to one I once made elsewhere on the Basque language.

    I was trying to shine a light on why it is difficult to accurately pin down the Celts or the Picts in a way that is satisfying to a majority of scholars. This thread has shown some of the issues – for instance ethnically English individuals growing up in Wales (Tim Newman) and ethnically “Celtic” individuals growing up in England (myself). These issues matter insofar as nationalists like to use the divisions to their own end, principally to bash the English in Britain (there are similar divisions along ethno-linguistic lines in Spain and France). My point was that those who consider themselves ethnically Celtic are perhaps not and that in any case the Celts are much more complicated than the casual ethno-nationalist tropes make out. My thanks to “Actually from there” for his admirably short interpretation of my comment.

    I am not an ethno-nationalist in any way. Culture is what matters, not race.

    I didn’t mean to draw the thread further off-topic and indeed I am very interested in Uber which is why I mentioned it isn’t available in my area. I discovered that when I tried to use it recently but alas it isn’t available. I find that slightly odd in these globally connected times.

  • Alisa

    But without “accusing” anyone of ethnicism (is that a word?) or nationalism, or any other sort of collectivism, Michael’s question is a very good one: what is ethnicity? How does one define it, and to what non-collectivist end is it useful?

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    “Ethnicity” means lots of different things to different people. Many of them like to thing it is about ancestry and descent blood and the like, but genetic testing tends to suggest that, well, everybody has been screwing pretty much everybody since the dawn of time. Which is heartening, frankly.

  • Actually from there

    I tend to the view that ethnicity is primarily a question of self-identification. So I wouldn’t be on exactly the same page as Alex when he says that there are people who consider themselves to be ethnically Celtic but who in fact may not be. But I understand what he is saying and there has to be some way to say it. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s hard to talk about the ancestry of groups without using very loaded words like ‘race’.

  • Alisa

    I know (AFT, if I may? 🙂 ) – but your comment only goes to show how messy that word is. It is even messier than race, since at least with the latter one can point to some clear and relatively easily definable physical attributes (the usefulness of that term as based on those attributes being a separate matter, of course). It’s not that I mind people using the word, I would just like to know what it really means.

  • AFT

    AFT is more graceful, even it does make me come across as a bit stern…

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    If you grow up on a country that is not based on ethnic identity – in my case, Australia, but the US and Canada also work – then “ethnicity” is almost impossible to understand as an idea at first. What is it? Why do people care about it so much? It just doesn’t make any sense. At least, that was my experience.

  • AFT

    On the substantive point, it’s not a word I use much myself, for precisely the reason that Michael Jennings gives: it means different things to different people. But context is usually enough to work out what is meant.

  • Alisa

    Yeah, I guess.

  • Laird

    So if I’m following this thread correctly, non-ethnic Gaelic-speaking Celts like Uber? Or did I miss something?

  • Actually from there, and Alex, are quite right that the old idea of the Picts being goidelic is being challenged; I was out-of-date re the current opinion – or knowledge, but as they say we don’t know much about them. Whether they were brythonic or goidelic, the Romans were pretty sure they were celts IIRC, and they’d certainly met plenty of celts by the time they met the picts.

    Re ethnicity, genetic tests on the representatives of leading Campbell families have strongly supported the clan idea of descent from a common ancient founder. That’s just one data point, but it seems that old myths of groups having common ancestry can sometimes have much content. So while ‘Actually from there’s remark

    > I tend to the view that ethnicity is primarily a question of self-identification

    may be relevant to any political importance today, there remains a factual question. Some clans may have been made largely by adherence to an affinity, with the clan ancestor a trivia or a fiction. Others might indeed be an ethnicity by majority.

  • Perhaps Laird is dropping a witty and understandable hint – something about OT, could it be. 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh — I just thought of it, “No flies on me!” as they say:

    Niall: We have the exact word already in English: kneel. As in “I will never, EVER kneel before you, MIZZ Clinton!” And in the Catholic Mass, one occasionally kneels. Although I’ve only attended one once or twice, most notably on the occasion of my brother’s marriage to his Catholic wife.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Unfortunately, Australia isn’t as free of ethnicity as we would like.
    Some students were expelled from a room in the QUT, a University here, because they didn’t have Aboriginal links. Some rooms have been segregated for ‘indigenious’ use only, and there is a court case due soon. It’s very disappointing for Australians, who like to think they are an advancing culture.
    I think ethnic=tribal.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very well, you Gaelic-speakers, so how do pronounce “Eóin,” and what is the rule of pronunciation that I would follow if I ever had to work out such a name for myself; and was that the Professor’s inspiration for Éowyn (but it looks more like Welsh to me, but then I’m English-cum-Spanish so what do I know); and what are the rules that make “Eilidh” sound like “Ai-Lay”? And is “Ai” as in “rain” or is it closer to a rhyme with “eye”? (Before, Niall, you said “Ally,” which here at least is often short for Alice, which is why I made the connection, and it looked vaguely plausible, so….)

    Which is why I must ask, Could you guys please put together an online course for me to take (for a fee of course, we can discuss possible forms of payment later)? Naturally I would want to be able to talk to one or more of you on the phone when I need help with deciphering or pernonciation. :>))

  • The Australian ethnic dorms story above is too typical of what is happening all over. I wonder if the students could “identify” as aboriginal, like Elizabeth Warren and her ilk. Provided your politics and actions are sufficiently SWJ, rigid rules for others become right-think (i.e. left-think) exceptions for you. This is an example of the point made by ‘Actually from there’ – that ethnicity is used politically. Anyone can be a Reinhard Heydrich provided they are as willing as he to “identify” with the group they’d find it more convenient to have been born in. There remain factual historical enquiries that can be made about ethnicity – if you can ignore the background din. (And if it will ignore you – shades of the old saying, ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”.)

    Julie, your “never kneel to you, MIZZ Clinton” may indeed have caught my name exactly – though now it is I who may not know that accent so precisely as to be sure. In England, the accent is different. It was old-time lefty Neil Kinnock – and could not, in n England of perfect pronunciation, have been me – who was the unwitting cause of black rod, at a state opening of parliament, catching site of him and shouting out ‘Neil’ (he wanted to talk to him about something), thus inadvertently causing a visiting group of tourists to drop to their knees imagining they had committed some terrible offence against protocol (or so the amusing story goes).

    Although Bill Bryson is more a readable than a reliable source – I’ve often caught him out in errors – he had a point when he wrote that, “Gaelic spelling and pronunciation look as if they were decided by rival committees meeting in separate rooms while implacably divided over some deep semantic issue.” He was specifically speaking of Irish Gaelic but in Scotland the situation was made worse by the fact that the Gaelic speaking areas were fragmenting around the growing Lallands(i.e. English)-speaking culture long before any of them were meaningfully literate (Ireland’s Gael’s had a stronger literate culture; Iona might have spread it to Scotland but the vikings prevented that). There is no single pronunciation of Scots gaelic. My name is just one of those where the first question is “from Ireland or from Scotland” before pronunciation can be discussed, but “from where in Scotland” may also be needed. If your name is Shona and you are unwise enough ( 🙂 ) to sign up for a gaelic course in the Isle of Skye, you will learn that a gaelic-speaking Skye-er should greet you with what sounds like “A-Honage” – so I learned from someone called Shona who was so taught on a “photography in Gaelic” course.

    That gives another layer to my web pseudonym idea – convert your name to gaelic and then to its phonetic spelling in the olden-times Skye accent; the twitter mob would never find you outside the web.

    IIRC you can sign up for that course and similar ones online – be my guest Julie, but also be warned! It is _not_ easy, and we’d miss your insights here if they had to be deferred while you did your gaelic homework. I have a leaflet on gaelic vowel pronunciation (Argyll accent) somewhere (for use in saying place names); I’ll see if I can find it online for you. It will be an easier solution for you. 🙂 To let you see what you’d be in for, listen to Ian and Koren sing a gaelic song here


    while following a text of it here


    Your starter questions:

    1) In the third verse, Ian and Koren sing a different version to the text – how sure would you have been of that if I had not told you?

    2) How well are you doing relating white space between words in the text to the words they are singing?

    3) Before moving on to the harder task of the vowels, how well are you doing relating their consonants to the text?

    etc. Consider yourself warned. 🙂

    A final thought: maybe the Uber people should all go get their own thread 🙂 – or maybe we should all try and begin to draw this to a close. I’ll try and make the above my last post (reactions to it welcome, of course).

  • Bill Bryson’s books are full of careless errors and poor research. I find them very annoying.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Thank you so much for your help and advice. I’ve enjoyed every minute and learned a bit besides. And I will risk following your links. Brrrrr! :>)))

    (And what a welcome diversion from the poop-throwing contests, the ammunition for which we Provincials are currently trying to avoid falling into! It is unlikely that we will negotiate the next 8+ months successfully.)

    The same to the rest of you who have been lured down this byway, where Uber does try to follow, but its GPS may find itself up the road without a GPS, so to speak….

    Speaking of kneel, if you go to http://www.onelook.com and type in “kneel,” on the upper right corner of on-page results list in the quick-definition box there is a speaker icon. You can click on the U.S. or the U.K.. There is maybe the slightest hair of difference. If you’re curious as to how you should be pernonced*, that is.

    *”Pernonce” and variants aren’t typos; they’re my idea of being slightly humorous, when the occasion strikes me as apt. But of course you all figured that out long ago. 🙂

    . . .

    Niall, your story about Kinnock & the Tourists is very droll, to quote Sir Humphrey, and caused an LOL. :>)) However, it raises another question: what is “black rod”?

    And another leap in the dark: “Lallands” — sounds a lot like “Low lands,” especially if it comes from the Scottish Highlanders. And the following line is spoken by a resident of southern Appalachia, in particular one living within the area of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ca. 1910: “Be ye from the Level Lands?” meaning (in that particular case) the flat lands south of the Appalachians. Said resident and cohort would presumably be of Scots or Scots-Irish ancestry….

  • Lallands: the English dialect spoken in the lowlands of Scotland in the mediaeval and renaissance period (not that there was much renaissance in Scotland at the time 🙂 ); think Rabbie Burns poems in spades.

    Black Rod: splendidly-costumed state official who ceremonially knocks on the door of the house of commons in parliament. (From memory, the house always makes him knock twice – or is it three times? – just to show they have the constitutional right to deny him entry – or to deny someone something.) Black Rod both looks like and IIRC carries a black rod.

    If you liked the first song, here us Koren singing “Ochoin A Righ, Gur Tinn An Galair An Gradh”


    and the song’s text is here


    (this time it is the right get for all verses).

    And now I really really am saying to myself time to stop posting in this thread. It’s been fun.

  • Mr Ed

    A wintry Monday night in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I saw two Uber cars within 10 minutes in the city centre. The first time I have ever seen a badged Uber car anywhere, but then again round my way there are far more sheep than people, and they don’t have an app yet.