The British Bit: Keep calm and read on


    Photo by author.

    I'm thoroughly on the "Keep Calm and Carry" On bandwagon.

    A poster is on my wall, a "Keep Calm" bookmark is in the book I'm reading for my English class, and my knitting lives in a "Keep Calm and Carry Yarn" tote bag. With graduation rapidly approaching, it has become my mantra to keep me working with Career Services, applying to jobs, managing my finances and doing general real person things instead of curling up into the fetal position and marathoning Doctor Who.

    The first time I came across the phrase was at a poster sale in the basement of the University of Edinburgh's Student Union in September 2010. I bought a “Keep Calm” poster because I was amused by how quintessentially British it was. I had absolutely no idea about the phrase's fascinating history.

    I wouldn't blame you for being sick of "Keep Calm" and its various parodies. The number of objects – from shirts to notebooks and anything else you can think of – branded with the saying has skyrocketed so that you can't even enter Barnes and Noble without seeing at least a half dozen examples.

    Given the poster's prevalence and iconic status today, it's mind-blowing to find out that the 1939 propaganda poster was never seen by the public until 2000. Here's how things went down: The British government created three posters to keep spirits up during World War II. The first two – "Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might" and "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory" – were printed and issued across the country. The third was "Keep Calm and Carry On." It's a little unclear whether the Ministry of Information scrapped the poster because it was deemed too patronizing towards the nation or whether it was kept in reserve for only the most dire of circumstances that simply never came. Whatever the reason, "Keep Calm" was distributed so limitedly that only about 20 originals exist outside of the British Archives today.

    The poster became famous in 2000 when Stuart Manley, co-owner of a secondhand bookshop called Barter Books, discovered a copy in a box of books he'd bought at auction. His wife, Mary, loved it so she had it framed and hung it in the shop. Customers loved it so much that they started selling reproductions a year later and things only took off from there, even to the point of a bitter copyright battle.

    It's hard to pinpoint a reason why poster has become so beloved since it's rediscovery. One explanation is that "Keep Calm and Carry On" is a distillation of the stereotype that Britons are repressed and can't handle emotion. On a different note, one video blogger says that it "speaks to our current wave of retro-futuristic nostalgia, to the trendiness of topography and design and to our current fears in this unstable economy." Her first point is way too meta for me and I'm not sure that the majority of people care about topography and design, but I might agree with her last point.

    Personally, the phrase has been a source of genuine comfort for me over the last few years when facing times of stress or upheaval. I’ve been a worrier since I was a kid and "Keep Calm and Carry On" reminds me a lot of what my mother used to tell when I got anxious. "Breathe," she'd say. "Slow down and take a deep breath." She always thought I could put things into perspective and attack problems better with a level head and she was right. So "Keep Calm and Carry On" is just the catchy way to describe a coping mechanism and, in a way, it’s been a part of my life since I was a kid.

    Along with being words of encouragement, they can be the source of a good laugh when parodied well. My favorites include: Keep Calm and Drink Tea, Keep Calm and Cary Grant, and F--- Everything and Become a Pirate. What are yours?


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