That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us

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9780224101523: That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us

An expat’s witty and insightful exploration of English and American cultural differences through the lens of language that will leave readers gobsmacked

In That’s Not English, the seemingly superficial differences between British and American English open the door to a deeper exploration of a historic and fascinating cultural divide. In each of the thirty chapters, Erin Moore explains a different word we use that says more about us than we think. For example, "Quite" exposes the tension between English reserve and American enthusiasm; in "Moreish," she addresses our snacking habits. In "Partner," she examines marriage equality; in "Pull," the theme is dating and sex; "Cheers" is about drinking; and "Knackered" covers how we raise our kids. The result is a cultural history in miniature and an expatriate’s survival guide.
 

American by birth, Moore is a former book editor who specialized in spotting British books—including Eats, Shoots & Leaves—for the US market. She’s spent the last seven years living in England with her Anglo American husband and a small daughter with an English accent. That’s Not English is the perfect companion for modern Anglophiles and the ten million British and American travelers who visit one another’s countries each year.

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About the Author:

Erin Moore grew up in Key West, Florida, and is a graduate of Harvard who also attended King’s College, London. She lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword

Reading Erin Moore’s book, I suddenly realised a great truth. I was raised bilingual. Not that my Londoner parents took any pains in this department, but they were the first generation to have TV, and they considered it such a blessing to mankind that they never considered (for a single second) the option of switching it off. There were four things I absorbed about television from an early age:


   · You never switch it off.
   · American films are superior to British films.
   · Jumping up and down in front of the television to get parental attention is just childish and will be ignored.
   · American television is better than British television.

Thus I grew up watching Bilko and My Three Sons and I Love Lucy and Dennis the Menace. And I was happy. The dialogue wasn’t so hard to understand, after all—once you knew that “candy” meant sweets, that “sidewalk” meant pavement, and that children said “Gee” at the start of every sentence. True, nothing in the sunny home lives of the Americans on television related to my own experience. We had no picket fence; we had no gigantic refrigerator; we had a markedly different climate. But theirs was self-evidently the pleasant reality, ours but the bathetic and murky shadow. No wonder I grew up believing that Americans were the only standard by which to measure one’s own inadequacies. At the age of seven, I was reading a fairy story about a banished king and his daughter in which the king exclaimed, “Have we not blue blood in our veins?” and I went to my mum (who was watching television) and tugged her arm. “Mum,” I said, “what colour blood have Americans got?”

This bilingualism was an illusion, of course. I did not speak American. The first time a waitress barked, “Links or patties?” at me in a real American diner, I was so confused that I wanted to cry. “I just want a sausage,” I said lamely. Similarly, Erin Moore, before she came to live in England, believed she was a great Anglophile. Based in New York, she edited books written by British authors; she visited England frequently; she had British-born in-laws. However, nothing had prepared her for the day-to-day cultural chasms of misunderstanding that tiresomely divide the British English–speaker from the American. As this book so beautifully reveals, it’s not just the vocabulary that is different: First, the vocabulary is symptomatic of much more; second, if you aren’t pitch-perfect in your delivery, you still fail, and all your effort goes for nothing. Take the word “cheers.”

The English say “chis” out of the sides of their mouths when they mean “thank you” or “good-bye.” Americans do not pick up on this and instead say “cheers”—toothily, hitting the “r” a bit hard and implying an exclamation point, whether they mean it as a toast or as a casual good-bye. An English banker living in New York groused, “I’m getting sick of my clients saying ‘cheers’ to me. Americans say ‘cheers’ like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.”

If you’re a British person who has ever been confused by an American saying that he “quite” liked you (apparently this meant he liked you a lot, not that he was being mealy-mouthed), or if you are an American constantly looking round for the phantom gin and tonic that has elicited the bizarre British salute of “Cheers!,” this book will get to the heart of your alienation. Word by troublesome word, Erin Moore delves into more cultural differences than you ever knew existed. A discussion of “proper” takes us to the proper English breakfast (with links, of course, not patties). This in turn leads to the latest item on the Denny’s breakfast menu: the Peanut Butter Cup Pancake Breakfast, which sounds like a heart attack on a plate but also would probably be worth dying for. Similarly, the word “dude” takes us on a brilliant digression concerning the bogus power of the British accent to intimidate Americans and also speculates on why the British somehow can’t bring themselves to adopt the term “dude,” no matter how much they happen to be exposed to it.

By the end of this book you will be impressed (as I was) that the long-standing affection between our two cultures has managed to override all this mutual incomprehension for so long. Why no international incidents caused by honest misunderstandings? Is it because we are both too polite to say when we think there is a miscommunication? On a book-promotion tour in America a few years ago, I was asked on live National Public Radio to talk about what Kingsley Amis had famously said about “berks and wankers” when it comes to preserving rules of grammar. “Now, Lynne, would you consider yourself a berk or a wanker?” asked the solemn broadcaster, with no apparent mischief in mind. Both words are, of course, rude in British English, but “wanker” is very rude indeed, a more potently offensive equivalent to “jerk-off,” and you wouldn’t expect a nice British lady to use it while discussing outmoded attitudes to, say, ending sentences with prepositions. But I was on live radio, and the chap had asked the question without embarrassment, so I just went along with it. I pressed on and explained what Amis had meant about berks and wankers, all the while praying that “wanker” was either meaningless in American English or meant something innocuous such as “clown.”

As many of us know, straddling the Atlantic can be quite uncomfortable—and it doesn’t help that the word “quite” doesn’t always mean what you think it means. Being British, I can (infuriatingly) even have it both ways. I can say, “Are you quite sure?”—meaning “Are you positive?” But I can also say, shrugging, “Mmm, I’m only quite sure”—meaning I’m not sure at all. I can only apologise for the confusion that this linguistic imperiousness understandably engenders in others. No wonder the British are known abroad as slippery customers who never mean what we say and never say what we mean. We must appear like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

But I am so glad that such weaselly problems have led Erin Moore to write That’s Not English. It is a brilliant guide to the revealing differences between two branches of English from a writer who is funny, smart, and almost worryingly observant. I was charmed from first to last. As an English person I will say, “Oh, jolly well done,” but I’d like to add: “Good job!”

LYNNE TRUSS

Introduction

The idea that England and America are two countries separated by a common language is variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Regardless of who said it, this ubiquitous line trivializes the problem. I’ve known Americans who made entire careers in the Middle East on a few lines of Arabic and conducted affairs in Paris without enough French to fill an éclair. So why do Americans, who arrive in England with an entire language in common, have such a hard time fitting in? And why do English people, who once set up homes in every far-flung outpost of their empire, find America so foreign?

What underlies the seemingly superficial differences between English and American English are deep and historic cultural divisions, not easily bridged. An American who moves to England is like Wile E. Coyote running over a cliff into thin air. It isn’t a problem until he notices something is missing, and that something is the ground under his feet. An unscientific survey has shown that it takes about six months for an average expatriate to plummet into the ravine.

Eight years after moving to London from New York, I’m still having Wile E. Coyote moments. English people get a kick out of Americans cheering their children on at the playground because they would only say “Good job” with reference to a child’s bowel movement. Americans are similarly bemused when the English shout “Well done!” because to them that’s nothing but an unsophisticated way to order meat. Americans are wary of anything described as a “scheme” because in American English the word has nefarious connotations, whereas the English will talk about their “retirement schemes” or their “payment schemes” without guile. An American friend of mine got a huge unintentional laugh at her company’s London office when she said, “I really have to get my fanny into the gym!” (If you don’t know what’s so funny about that, check Mufti.) You don’t even have to stray into scatological or sexual realms to cause offense. Saying “couch” (or worse, “settee”) instead of “sofa” is a class-baiting crime in some English households, but the only way to find this out is to trespass on the delicate sensibility. This particular social minefield does not exist for the American, who is allowed to bumble along in ignorance. But ignorance is not always bliss, as every expat learns.

The English abroad in America are less prone to such gaffes, since they have been exposed to American vocabulary and pronunciation through television, films, commercials, and other cultural exports for most of their lives. But landing in America can be overwhelming nonetheless. It isn’t just that Americans make certain assumptions about the English character; it’s also that having your own assumptions about Americans constantly confronted and challenged can be exhausting at first. We underestimate the culture shock involved when traveling between English-speaking countries at our peril. Once the novelty wears off, homesickness hits hard and fast. You can take nothing for granted.

England and the United States exist in mutual admiration and antagonism. This tension won’t go away anytime soon, and it’s regularly stoked. The BBC was inundated with suggestions after asking the public to submit their most reviled Americanisms. The New York Times reported Americans, in contrast, to be “Barmy over Britishisms.” The differences in our language are most telling when it comes to vocabulary, which opens the door to a deeper exploration of how we think and who we are. The same word can have divergent, even opposite, meanings in England and America (quite, proper, middle-class). Some words exist in one English and not the other (mufti, bespoke, dude). There are words lionized by one country and reviled by the other (whilst, awesome, shall) and words that have connotations in one country that they lack in the other (sorry, smart, ginger). There are words that just sound veddy, veddy English, that Americans are more and more tempted to borrow willy-nilly, even when they don’t always know what they are getting into (bloody, shag, bugger, cheers, gobsmacked).

These differences may charm, annoy, or obsess English speakers, but one thing is sure: They mark us wherever we go. And that is a good thing. Differences in language contribute to individual and cultural identity. They are interesting, valuable, and fun in themselves, but they are also the blazes on the trail. If you ignore or fail to understand them, you might as well be speaking a different language. You’ll certainly feel lost in the wilderness. This book is a guide to English and American cultural differences, through the lens of language: the words we use that say the most about us, and why. It is a cultural history in miniature, and an expatriate’s survival guide—from the United Kingdom, to the United States, and back again.

Joe Queenan once wrote that “Anglophilia, like pornography, is one of those things that are hard to describe but you know when you see them.” I’ve always been one of those Americans. It runs in families. My nana gave me a pop-up book about the royal family and told me stories about her family’s time in the Cotswolds while my grandfather enjoyed what had to be one of the cushiest postings of his air force career. At the age of five, I dragged my mother out of bed for a predawn viewing of Princess Diana’s wedding. I still remember the nightdress I wore for the occasion. Mom was the one who woke me sixteen years later with the terrible news from Paris. For a certain cohort of American women, unlikely or silly or embarrassing as it may seem, these events were childhood’s bookends. A hopeful and credulous part of us, awakened while watching Princess Diana’s walk down the aisle, died a little during her funeral cortege.

Today, a new generation is delighting royal watchers worldwide, and giving souvenir makers a renewed revenue stream. The English have a lot to be proud of, having recently celebrated the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Olympics on home soil, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the birth of a future king. American Anglophilia is at an all-time high, too. You know it when you see it.

It has been more than three decades since my sentimental education at Nana’s knee. After studying nineteenth-century British literature at colleges in America and England, marrying into an English/American family, and realizing the dream of becoming a dual citizen, let me tell you: Living in England really takes the edge off one’s Anglophilia. What I loved before was not England itself, but the idea of England. Now my feelings, while still positive, are more complicated, attached as they are to specific people, experiences, and the circumstances of daily life in London with my husband, Tom, and our young children, Anne and Henry. As a sympathetic soul said to me during my first, rocky transitional year, moving to a new country is jolly hard! An American in England will always feel like a foreigner, and not always entirely admired—or welcome. Which is fair enough. American expatriates are a dime a dozen, particularly in London, and have been for a long time. In Hugh Walpole’s Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, published in 1925, Harkness, an American expat on a train, is told by an Englishman, “If I had my way I’d make the Americans pay a tax, spoiling our country as they do.”

I am an American,” says Harkness, faintly.

This may come as a surprise to Americans who have been to England on vacation, and spent a couple of madcap weeks seeking out everything they expected to find: legendary politeness and reserve, the much-vaunted stiff upper lip, Beefeaters, ravens, double-decker buses, infallible taxi drivers, Shakespeare, warm beer, pub lunches, and afternoon tea. Check, check, check, and check. Stereotypes confirmed, there is just enough time for a stop at Harrods before heading for Heathrow. Meanwhile, one of my English friends makes a compelling case that the English have more, culturally and temperamentally, in common with the Japanese than they do with Americans. That’s why it is possible to spend months, and even years, as an outsider in the country and never penetrate beneath the surface to how people really live and think, and what their words actually mean. Though as time passes, one does begin to develop an inkling of just how much one doesn’t know, and this actually helps. The similarities in our English can be misleading. It’s the differences that g...

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Moore, Erin
Editorial: Square Peg (2015)
ISBN 10: 0224101528 ISBN 13: 9780224101523
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