That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book. (It was published in 2015 but I am just now getting to it. Sorry!)


Well, this was an interesting one. Maybe it’s a good time to post a quick reminder about the reviews that post here at the blog. These days they come in two types: reposts from Shelf Awareness, and blog originals. The former are written (in theory) objectively, with comments on what might be appealing about a given book, perhaps for a given audience or perhaps generally. The latter, the blog originals, are subjective and personal. This is one of the latter.

I struggled with this book from almost the first page. The subject matter is of interest to me; but the narrator’s tone and personality grated. I was motivated to keep reading because I appreciated the content, but I found myself often taking issue or silently arguing or feeling a little wrinkled. How much of this is about me and how much about the book? Generally a little of both. I found Moore’s narrative voice a little cute, trying for a humor that didn’t suit me personally, and sometimes too quick to make a jab that I didn’t feel was warranted. This may play more pleasingly to other ears, so as always, feel free to judge for yourself.

Part of my problem definitely came from the ease with which Moore feels comfortable making broad statements. “Many Americans consider peanut butter a perfectly reasonable breakfast food” – what?? “Surprisingly, the concept of the all-you-can-drink brunch was not invented by the English” – funny, I’m not the least bit surprised. It feels like a very American concept to me. “Americans often speak of exercise in terms that other cultures reserve for their spiritual practices,” including ‘guru’ for personal trainers, being ‘religious’ about exercise, and classes or instructors having ‘cultlike’ followings. I’d say all three of these terms get used for many nonreligious walks of life, including but by no means especially exercise. Americans avoid outdoor exercise because of our “extreme weather”? First of all, this is a HUGE country; generalizing about weather seems a losing battle. Secondly, what is the UK’s (stereotyped) weather famous for? Not pleasant to be outside in, right? So it must be something different – like the English attitude toward weather. (To be fair, Moore gets there. But that statement about “extreme weather” still made me squawk.) “You might struggle to find an American who hasn’t eaten pie for breakfast” surprised me as much as the peanut butter thing. Unless I’m forgetting, you’ve found one. I guess breakfast is a personal issue.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that I am not ‘Americans’ but one American, and you can’t please us all. Moore acknowledges in her introduction that it is difficult to generalize about a place as large and diverse as the United States or the United Kingdom. I might be a reader especially sensitive to this challenge, as I’ve spent so much of my own headspace and writing on just this issue: that a place like Houston or even a little town like Buckhannon, West Virginia is too diverse to sum up in a phrase. It’s sort of a tenet of my personal religion that you can’t generalize place. Again, Moore acknowledges this. But then she goes on to do it anyway – which, to be fair, you’d have to attempt to write a book about “Britishisms, Americanisms, and what English says about us.” I do think it might be more smoothly pulled off with different phrasing (perhaps people from the American South “tend to” assume rather than saying they just do), or with a little more recognition of exceptions. But these strategies would interfere with Moore’s jokey tone.

I am interested to note that this book feels surprisingly dated despite being published in early 2015 (written in 2014 – still refers to some late 2014 events as being in the future). But then, it’s been a momentous few years in the U.S. For one thing, Moore’s jokes about Donald Trump, he of The Apprentice and the Miss USA pageant? Not funny today. Certain remarks about the general financial wellbeing of the average American feel a little off now* (but that’s the trouble with “the average American”!). And Moore’s observation that ‘bespoke’ is not a commercial term on this side of the Atlantic I’m going to say is just no longer true, if indeed it was in 2014. I see advertisements for bespoke everything.

I’m curious as to when Moore – an American now living in England – made her move overseas. I feel like it matters, how long she’s been there. Her confusion about the way ‘partner’ is used over there – for romantic life partners of all genders, not just same-sex ones, and for married and nonmarried couples alike – is familiar to me (as someone who’s only lived in the U.S.), but I figured that one out in… late high school? in Texas, so I wonder if that was an issue of simple timing.

Approaching another personal pet peeve: Moore relies on the (U.S.) red states/blue states binary which I feel is misleading and outdated and unnecessarily divisive, when an urban/nonurban binary would make a little more sense, but in fact (did I mention) every place includes a little bit of everybody. In the 2016 presidential election, Texas’s electoral votes went for Trump. We showed up as a red state. But to throw the entire state under that bus is to disregard the 3,877,868 popular votes that were cast for Clinton in Texas (not to mention the other non-Trump ones – he won 52% of our popular vote). I’m a bit prickly on the red state/blue state myth, myself – it only works in the electoral college.

But here’s my favorite gripe of the whole book. Discussing sweet vs. unsweet tea (another U.S. regionalism),

a Southerner will find, to her horror, that Dixie Crystals do not melt in tea that is already cold, but sink forlornly to the bottom of the glass. For some Southerners, this is the extent of their science education.

As my friend Liz points out, the first statement is actually untrue; a spoon and a little stirring will melt that sugar for you. But that second sentence? Is a cheap shot, and pretty unfair; plays on unflattering stereotypes; shows the narrator to be rather mean-spirited; and serves as a fine example of the kind of humor that hopes to carry this book.

Even with all these critiques, I kept reading, and I appreciated learning a few things (particularly about food, knightings and whatnot, and a few terms – I had never heard ‘Crimbo’). Note that my complaints are about how Americans are portrayed – I don’t think of myself as a prideful nationalist by any stretch, but I bristle at any large group being pigeonholed, and I know Americans much better (being one myself) than I know the Brits or the English. I’m curious to know if a Brit would find themself equally prickled. I’ve sent the book on to a British friend, so here’s hoping he comes through with his own reactions – and we’ll see if I’ve been unreasonable by comparison! (I hope he’s not reading this so he keeps a fresh outlook.)

I wound up feeling like the work of That’s Not English was as much as about making sense of (drawing conclusions about) the differences between American and British cultures as it was about language. Language (and other habits) was used as an entry point (and as chapter headings), but the generalizations made were often much broader than which phrase we all use and what we mean by ‘quite.’ For example, the chapter ‘Fortnight’ recognizes that the Brits use that term and the Americans don’t. That’s the sum of its linguistic observation; the rest is about how differently we vacation. (Danger! Generalizing a nation’s vacation behaviors would seem to lump all socioeconomic classes together…) Perhaps that’s at the heart of my problem with the book. I can’t help but think of the excellent Talk on the Wild Side as a counterexample. That book’s scope was admittedly different, but I felt it was a lot more responsible in the conclusions it drew. I also remember fondly Eats, Shoots & Leaves, whose author wrote a foreword for this book. But I read that one quite a while ago and can’t write intelligently about it now.

There is definitely some good content here, and possibly a different reader (more lighthearted; happier with stereotype as humor) will love it. I seem to be taking things too seriously, although I’m not sure I should apologize for that. I’d be curious to hear an alternate opinion.


Rating: 5 misunderstandings.

*Final note to say that at least in my pre-pub copy, this book contains no footnotes, endnotes, or other record of sources used. There is a Selected Bibliography for further reading, but no citation for where Moore gets this or that fact. As I often questioned hers (and as I am that kind of reader – sorry), I regretted this omission. Maybe there were notes in the final copy, but they’re not mentioned here as TK.

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