Like humans and chimpanzees, Americans and Britons share 99 percent of linguistic and cultural DNA, but it’s the 1 percent difference that often seems to define us. Here, Erin Moore ably strives to explain how and why this is so.
A former editor who published British books for American readers, and a native-born American who now lives with her family in England, Moore nimbly curates a tour of American and English language and culture, with special attention to the fault lines where they collide. As the American husband of an English-born wife now residing in Israel among both Yankee and British expats, I eagerly devoured her book, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how these geologic forces both cleave and bond our two societies.
Moore seeks answers to questions such as: “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?” While definitive solutions to these quandaries at times elude Moore—in fact, they may not actually exist—she weighs several plausible explanations, along the way offering an insightful take on the evolution of language and culture.
Authenticity only partly accounts for the rift. After all, as Moore notes, “today’s English English, like American English, evolved as a dialect from 16th-century English, and neither can claim to be closer to the original.” Perhaps the differences have become so prominent because of our strong similarities. Moore describes a “keen sibling rivalry” in which “England plays the role of the cool older sister, trying to ignore the fact that pesky little America is now big enough to pin her to the wall.”
But in many respects, language both reflects and reinforces these distinctions. Moore skillfully focuses disputed words like a lens through which key cultural differences become apparent. Thus, her chapter entitled “Cheers” explores varying drinking habits of Britons and Americans. “Knackered” (English English for “exhausted”) considers diverse baby-and-mummy/mommy practices; “Ginger” (“redhead,” but a fiercely derogatory term across the pond) wades into race-relations; and “Mufti” (“the state of not being in uniform”) analyzes differing American and English dress patterns.
In one especially clever twist, she transforms her study of “bespoke”—which likely derives from the expression “been spoken for,” referring to the single bolt of cloth from which the tailor cuts a custom suit—into a comparison of sandwich-craft in both countries, thence into a reflection on wartime deprivation and rationing in Britain, and finally into a meditation on entitlement. Most compelling, however, is her sensitive but assured explanation, by way of linguistic distinction, of the persistent differences, and surprising similarities, between American and British approaches to issues of class, perception, and authenticity.
For example, Moore cites the term “dude”—“one of the most American-sounding words there is”—as Exhibit A in “the story of how American slang can become universal and classless in a way that is hard to imagine happening in England.” She traces the evolution of the all-purpose American word from its 1883 origin as a term of ridicule, to its early-20th-century usage in Black English as an approving way to describe a guy, to its lazy Californian surfer-stoner sense, and, finally, to its explosion in 1998, through The Big Lebowski. But Britons would never be caught dead saying “dude” in anything but an ironic way. Moore’s English friends (and mine) relish using “dude” as a way of “poking gentle fun at Americans, while taking advantage of the utility of the word.”
Or consider “shall.” In distinguishing “shall” from “will,” as Britons often but Americans rarely do, Moore examines striving and inevitability in the two lands. “Shall” implies what’s bound to happen to me, not what I’m determined to make happen. And while, as Moore notes, “in America, effort (and above all, being seen to make an effort) is practically a religion” and determination the national character trait, “should an English person appear to make an embarrassing effort, and rise too far above his peers, vulnerability to attack is his reward.” Thus, it’s not exactly surprising that “shall is not really part of Americans’ vocabulary. For them it is all about the individual will.”