Three Britishisms Explained in That’s Not English by Erin Moore

As a teenager, I was obsessed with all things British. I couldn’t get enough of The Arctic Monkeys, the strap for my guitar (on which I strummed clumsily along to Laura Marling songs) had a Union Jack print, and I infuriated my little sister by pretentiously saying I was skint instead of broke.

I finally got to live my dreams my sophomore year of college, when I spent a semester in London. I attended uni (university), got a lot of wear out of my wellies (rain boots), and made sure I always had my brolly (umbrella) packed in my bag. I giggled to discover that my orange juice contained juicy bits instead of pulp and marveled at the way out signs helping commuters exit the Tube. And in the pub, I had long, slightly confusing discussions with my classmates about the differences between England and America’s education systems and the words associated with them, including school, college, and uni. Despite the fact that we were all speaking English, it was clear that some of the words we used meant entirely different things in either language.

This all goes to say that there are few books that could be more up my alley than That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore. It’s funny, informational, and thoroughly charming. It was fascinating to learn more about English society, but it was also just as interesting to read Moore’s observations about American culture. As an American expat who has made her home in London, she has been experienced both ways of life — and she is keenly observant of both.

That’s Not English is broken down into 31 chapters, each of which takes a different word (quiteknackered, and gobsmacked, to name a few), describes its use in both languages, and discusses what its usage reveals about either culture. I had a ton of fun reading this book and spouting fun facts at my boyfriend — and I can’t resist sharing a few of them here:

Cheers. One of my favorite things about the English is their use of the word cheers for everything from signing emails to thanking someone to saying goodbye. Moore writes about the ubiquity of English pubs; everyone has a “local,” and whereas in the US, binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in one sitting, “In the UK, you’re looking at an eight-drink minimum.” And although the English are reluctant to trust teetotalers, Americans can take a puritanical stance on drinking; there are still more than 200 dry counties in the country.

Partner. Shortly after moving to England, Moore was convinced that 60% of the employees at her office were gay because she heard them talk about their partners. However, although Americans typically use partner to refer to a business partner or a same-sex significant other, the English use the word to refer to any committed relationship. The institution of marriage isn’t considered as important in England as in America, and the use of partner rather than husband/wife or the infantilizing boyfriend/girlfriend allows speakers of British English to refer to a significant other without mentioning his/her status or sex. This allows people to choose how much they want to reveal about themselves — and, despite their stereotypical reserve, in this regard, the English are more open than Americans — “if not about the details of their private lives, then to the possibilities of other people’s.”

Whinge. Along with “keep calm and carry on” and “keep a stiff upper lip,” the phrase “mustn’t grumble,” is quintessentially English. But despite this reputation for stoicism, the English passively whinge (whine) all the time. Americans are also great at grumbling, but they are more likely to actively complain when they want something to change. Moore uses whinge as a springboard to discuss customer service in England vs. America, where the phrase “stiff upper lip” came from in the first place (and how the death of Princess Diana may have led to its decline), and the rise in popularity of “keep calm and carry on” merchandise in recent years.”

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.

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22 thoughts on “Three Britishisms Explained in That’s Not English by Erin Moore

  1. Oh my gosh – definitely adding to my Nonfiction November list! This stuff is fascinating! I have a couple British friends in my new town and my son has a close British friend at his school…sometimes so close that he’s busted out in a British accent occasionally. Anyway – I just learned the word “skint” from my British friend a few months ago!

  2. Loved reading about your British obsession and time spent in London. I went to high school in Australia and picked up a lot of Britishisms over there (especially from my nana). I’m still reading the book and find it so engrossing.

  3. This book is going on my list! I LOVE all things British/Scottish (Mom being from Scotland) and when we visited two years ago what stood out was being called “love” and “darling” all the time. Beats “Ma’am” and “hon” hands down!

  4. This sounds like fun! I liked hearing about your time in London. And, I really think we should all use the word partner instead of all the other ways to name our significant others. So much simpler.

  5. I thought the chapter on “partner” was really fascinating. I think the British way of using the word makes more sense than the way we use it. I spent three weeks in London for a May session class — I wish I’d been adventurous enough to do a whole semester abroad.

  6. This book sounds so fun. I just finished reading How to Build a Girl and was confused (but quickly figured it out) that ‘council estate’ was like ‘government housing’ and yet COUNCIL ESTATE sounds so elegant and posh, don’t you think? I remember when reading The Uncommon Reader that I was put off by how many Britisms I didn’t know or figure out but I’m getting better.

  7. I haven’t read this book, but I do refer to my husband as my partner (and he refers to me as his partner)…. because he is my partner. It does get confusing sometimes when we get Mr. Rory and Evan.

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