That's Not English by Erin Moore

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That's Not English by Erin Moore

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A lively light-hearted look at the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. as reflected in the common language that divides us. I defy you not to smile repeatedly and also not to learn something about your own language whichever side of the pond you live on.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781784701918

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It's not clear who first coined the expression divided by a common language about Brits and Americans, but as this highly entertaining book demonstrates, it isn't our language that divides us. On the contrary the language simply reflects the divisions that exist. We tend to watch a lot of TV at home, but rarely find anything that totally engrosses us. As a result we tend to talk over a lot of TV. We play games with some of what we watch. One of those games is spotting anachronisms. Another is "would she ever have got the job" – particularly fun with crime programmes that think it's ok for lab techs to have long free-flowing locks when doing evidence analysis or have Detective Sergeants who frankly wouldn't have passed their CV submission. A long-running one involves spotting the spread of British English in American TV shows. Erin Moore explains why. Not directly, indeed I'm not sure she even makes the connection – but the fact that there are a lot more Brits in the higher echelons of US TV-making might just explain why CSI, NCIS, Law and Order and a whole host of other shows will slip in words like wallet, handbag, boot (of a car), pavement…

The point of the rambling intro is that we love language in my house. We especially love the English language: all it fluidity and change and simplicity and complexity. We bemoan those who cannot master simple grammar and try diligently to resurrect defunct words and expressions like 'high dudgeon' and wonder whether there is such a thing as 'low dugeon' and so on. Whilst we will mercilessly mutilate our beloved English ourselves wishing each other a Merry Chrimble or saying that we'll meet on Fursday or Fryedelday – such scorn will we pour on those who pronounce "secretary" as "secetry" – don't they know what the word means?! we will exclaim…

Language therefore is a joy and an interest. I still haven't read Eats Shoots and Leaves – but I will – meanwhile, back to Erin Moore and her attempts to understand the difference between Americans and Brits via their shared language.

That's the first point about this book. It's not really about the language. There's lots of fun lingo stuff in here, but it's really about what it's like for an American to live in the UK (and to a certain extent extrapolating to the reverse scenario). It is about Moore's lived experience of bringing up a child who is more English than she is. It is about our shared and diverse heritage.

It is, let me say this here in case I give the wrong impression, a highly entertaining read. Moore has sympathy for her American and her English family, friends, colleagues and strangers. She has equal disdain for both on occasions too. But only where we probably deserve it.

It is also quite an astute observation of the British in particular.

I'd be intrigued to know how she selected the words she did, because they're not necessarily the most obvious. However there are 31 words or expressions used as gateways to the differences between the world she was born into and the one that (for a while at least) she's chosen to live in. She moved from the States to the UK in her 30s.

The UK… that's one of the first confusing things to be sorted. Don't worry Erin – there's many in Britain couldn't tell you the difference between the UK, the British Isle, Britain, England etc… and the fact that some are geographic definitions, some political, some both can't help much.

Then there is how we identify ourselves. Are we British or English (Scots/Welsh/Irish/other)? This is a subject she sensibly steers clear of, though she does give us the American equivalent by trying to explain the term Yankee. The UK for all its smallness could probably fill a whole second volume on Geordies, Scousers, Cockneys, Londoners, Essex Girls, Kentish Men and Men of Kent, and so on and so forth. The complications of Yankee are tame by comparison.

So what does she give us?

In order – joyfully random so far as I can see, though she sensibly gets the "class" thing in early because it explains so much else – the words and phrases she takes on are: Quite, Middle Class, Moreish, Mufti, Gobsmacked, Trainers, Sorry, Toilet, Cheers, Knackered, Brolly, Bespoke, Fortnight, Clever, Ginger, Dude, Partner, Proper, OK, Whinge, Bloody, Scrappy, Pull, Shall, Sir, Yankee, Skint, Chrimbo, Tip, Tea and Way Out.

Along the way she examines our attitudes to holidays, to swearing, to religion, to complaining or not. She looks at why the British love uniforms, but how it's the Americans who salute the flag.

I find reinforcement for my personal view that Americans use wealth in the way we Brits use class…and the boundaries are just as solid. Indeed the Americans it seems to me are just as enamoured of "old money" as we are…except we have a different definition of "old" and allow people to hold onto the class even after they've lost the money.

I've got so many page corners turned in this book, I could probably talk about it all day – but I want you to go buy your own copy, so I should maybe restrain myself.

Possibly the most interesting thing, is that I don't necessarily think she's right about her English interpretations – which just proves the language is still evolving and maybe means different things in different parts of the country. Snaffle she tells us is to eat something quickly, sometimes without permission. Really? Where I come from 'snaffle' is to take something without permission, to use it, sometimes in the sense of borrow, sometimes in the sense of steal, but always something of low value. The food context is alien to me. I might snaffle a jaffa cake, but equally I might snaffle a stapler or use of a phone to make a call. But you can't snaffle a car or cash.

Any talk of cakes and cookies, candy and chocolate has to show up the difference between us. Her description of Liquorice Allsorts is hilarious but only because the British take on Hershey's bites back. She's wrong about one thing though. Pear drops don't smell of nail varnish. They smell of nail varnish remover.

Oh, I could go on… and I really mustn't.

If you only have one 'fun' stocking-filler book on your Xmas / Chrimbo list – make it this one!

And if you care about or just adore language you can’t not want to go back to Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss or more world-wide linguistic fun we can recommned Toujours Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod

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