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Authors: Erin Moore

That's Not English

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Copyright © 2015 by Erin Moore

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Moore, Erin (Writer on English language), author.

That’s not English : Britishisms, Americanisms, and what our English says about us / Erin Moore.

pages ; cm

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-0-698-18630-9

1. English language—Variation. 2. English language—Spoken English—United States. 3. English language—Spoken English—Great Britain. 4. English language—Great Britain—Usage. 5. English language—United States—Usage. 6. English language—Usage. 7. Americanisms. 8. Great Britain—Civilization—Social aspects. 9. United States—Civilization—Social aspects. I. Title.

PE1074.8.M66 2015

427—dc23

2014023302

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Version_1

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Foreword

by Lynne Truss

Introduction

Quite

In which we find out why Americans really like
quite
and the English only quite like
really
.

Middle Class

In which we find a far more stable class hierarchy in England, where class and cash are but loosely linked.

Moreish

In which we are surprised to discover that the English eat more chocolate than Americans do.

Mufti

In which we find out why the English love uniforms so much.

Gobsmacked

In which the English creative class appears to take over the American media, bringing new slang with it.

Trainers

In which America and England are shown to be among the world’s fattest countries, despite their apparent dedication to fitness.

Sorry

In which we find out why the English refuse to apologize for their overuse of
sorry
.

Toilet

In which we attempt to bring back a useful old word (while simultaneously discouraging the use of a vulgar one).

Cheers

In which we find out why Queen Victoria said, “Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Knackered

In which our children arrive to collectively lobotomize us.

Brolly

In which the rain, it raineth. Every. Single. Day.

Bespoke

In which a venerable old word is seized upon by vulgarians—but not Americans.

Fortnight

In which we unpack the reasons why the English take more—and longer—vacations than Americans.

Clever

In which we detect a common thread of anti-intellectualism running through both countries.

Ginger

In which ancient conflicts and prejudices continue to make life difficult for English redheads.

Dude

In which a word typifying American ease is revealed to have had more urbane origins.

Partner

In which an expat finds that her frustration with English reserve is not always justified.

Proper

In which we learn that people—and things—can be
proper
without being pretentious.

OK

In which American earnestness and moral relativism are shown to be two sides of the same coin.

Whinge

In which the existence of the English “stiff upper lip” is called into question.

Bloody

In which we swear—and share—alike.

Scrappy

In which we recognize the difference between American- and English-style self-deprecation.

Pull

In which we close our eyes and think of England.

Shall

In which a word seldom heard in America still speaks to the English.

Sir

In which the great and the good get gongs (and I explain what that means, in English).

Yankee

In which we delve into the origins of a controversial nickname and uncover its unexpected relationship to pie.

Skint

In which the money-talk taboo buckles under the weight of the recent recession.

Crimbo

In which we explore the pagan side of Christmas with our mutual friend Charles Dickens.

Tip

In which a gracious art is defended from its detractors.

Tea

In which the drink—and the rituals surrounding it—are shown to be considerably stronger than they appear.

Way Out

In which the Moore family comes to an enchanting place, and we leave them there.

Acknowledgments

Selected Bibliography

Foreword

R
eading 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:

  1. You never switch it off.
  2. American films are superior to British films.
  3. Jumping up and down in front of the television to get parental attention is just childish and will be ignored.
  4. 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!”

L
YNNE
T
RUSS

BOOK: That's Not English
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