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BOUND TO PLEASE / Observations of English to leave you gobsmacked

The Japan News

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterThat’s not English

By Erin Moore

Gotham Press, 223pp

Arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport, many travelers soon realize not everyone there necessarily speaks like Queen Elizabeth or the characters in the popular TV series “Downton Abbey.”

Whether the discovery brings relief or disappointment, Erin Moore’s book “That’s not English” will draw oohs and aahs from many English speakers.

Moore, born and raised in Florida, lives in London with her American husband. In the book, she earnestly digs into the differences between British English and American English by sharing her experience as an expat.

She examines 29 single words and two idioms, allocating a chapter to each. The list ranges from predictable choices, including “knackered,” “dude” and “bloody,” to some terms seemingly universal nowadays, such as “partner” and “OK.”

What makes the book intriguing is the wide variety of information she gathered to explain how and why such differences appeared on either side of the Atlantic. As Moore notes, “Differences in languages contribute to individual and cultural identity.” Highlighting the characteristics of the two countries, she looks at their historical backgrounds, hierarchies and the influence of media outlets.

In the chapter for “ginger,” the author says an “enviable” redhead in the United States can be “taunted and ridiculed for life” in England, linking the contrast to a historical antagonism between the English and the Scots and Irish.

In the chapter for “gobsmacked,” Moore cites the Susan Boyle sensation in 2009 as a reason for upgrading the slang to an internationally acknowledged word as the Scottish singer frequently used it in interviews. The author also notes the increasing number of British editors and producers working in the United States, saying they are contributing to a steady encroachment of British English in U.S. media.

Given the author’s background, it is only natural the book gives an impression it is an observation guide on the British. The habitually reserved English often engage in “negative politeness,” she says in the chapter for “sorry.” Then she analyzes “only the Japanese — masters of negative politeness — have anything even approaching the English sorry reflex.” Moore also says that “the English have more, culturally and temperamentally, in common with the Japanese than they do with Americans.”

Such cultural and linguistic insights could inspire some English teachers and students learning the language in Japan — where English education is commonly based on American usage — that British English may actually be more compatible with Japanese traits than American English.

Whatever the answer, Moore’s book sprinkles colorful background over the breadth of English with some amusing episodes sure to elicit giggles from those who have had similar experiences.

The self-described Anglophile’s affection for Britain as well as her motherland, the United States, oozes from the book. It must be wonderful to have a sense of belonging to two countries and experience the differences between them — a luxurious privilege only enjoyed by expats.

Moore describes differences in languages as “the blazes on the trail.”

“If you ignore or fail to understand them, you might as well be speaking a different language,” she warns.

Well, that’s probably what makes languages even more thrilling, attractive and fun for many multi-lingual communicators.

Where to read

On a relatively comfortable bench in a bustling international airport where you can observe other travelers

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