Five Fun Facts about That's Not English by Erin Moore
1. Lynne Truss convinced me to write That's Not English. Lynne and I met twelve years ago when I was an editor in New York and bought the US rights to her hilarious Eats, Shoots & Leaves. We ended up selling more than 2 million copies (and counting) in the U.S., and Lynne invited me to go along for some of her events and readings. We had a lot of adventures in the American South, the finest of which was cadging a private tour of William Faulkner’s house after hours with the caretaker, who let us behind the velvet ropes to see the kind of details that gladden a bookworm’s heart—like Faulkner’s hastily scratched notes to himself in pencil on the kitchen wall.
2. The book has 30 chapters—each about a single word that American and British English speakers use differently—but I began with a list of over 100 words. I mined my own experiences, those of fellow expats, and British friends who’d lived in the States for ideas about which words to include. Then I started digging for the stories behind the words, choosing only the ones that opened a door on our most entertaining cultural and historical differences. I was surprised and delighted every day by what I found.
3. I researched the book in the London Library and the British Library, and had so much fun doing it that I almost missed my deadline. I collected far more material than I needed for each chapter, and had a terrible time choosing. I keep a list of sources and quotes I regret leaving out, such as this description of American women from Oscar Wilde’s 1887 essay, The American Invasion [featured in The Critic as Artist]: “She can talk brilliantly upon any subject, provided that she knows nothing about it. Her sense of humour keeps her from the tragedy of a grande passion, and, as there is neither romance nor humility in her love, she makes an excellent wife.” (I can’t speak for any other American woman, but this describes me perfectly.)
4. The word I learned about the hard way is "quite". When Americans say we quite like something, we mean we really like it. But when an English person says he quite likes something, he’s damning it with faint praise. The difference in what English people and Americans mean when we say quite is emblematic of our habitual ways expressing ourselves. Not all generalizations are fair, but I think it is fair to say that Americans tend to be more effusive and enthusiastic in our speech than the English, who are masters of understatement. They have an advantage when it comes to picking up on what Americans mean, because our emotions are more on the surface and because they grow up watching American movies and television. It took me years to figure out what the English mean when they say quite. (The upside was that the chapter practically wrote itself.)
5. That's Not English was born from an immigrant’s frustration at not fully understanding or being understood. But through writing it, I realized that this awkward, fish-out-of-water feeling is universal—we can even feel it in our home countries. It’s also a very rich source of humor. These days, my loyalties—like my family and my language—are transatlantic. The book ended up as a love letter to two countries that owe one another more than they would like to admit.