citizenship and school

Americans have a well-established distaste for taxation without representation. This is part of the reason why, this past Wednesday, I became a British citizen (while retaining my American citizenship as well). Since 2004, the naturali{s/z}ation process has involved a test on "Life in the UK" (which serves as an indirect way of making sure you have some knowledge of the English language as well) and a citizenship ceremony at the end of the process. This is based on the US system and strikes some native Britons as un-British. I was hoping to have some good SBaCL stories to tell about the experience, but there was little of linguistic interest at the ceremony. But I did affirm my allegiance to the Queen, her heirs and successors. My UK-born friends think this is hilarious, as they've never had to do so, and are confident that they would get a lot of questions wrong if tested on the details of the history and structure of their government. But they know the answers to the questions that really matter if you want to get along in British culture, like: What is Blue Peter? Who is David Essex? Who has right-of-way at a roundabout? and Who's paying for the next round?

Two days after becoming a citizen, I was on my way back to the US. What a fickle soul I am. Better Half and I have just had a lovely weekend in New York City, which was only marred for BH by the fact that the place is crawling with Englishpeople. "But I used to be special!" he cried. "People used to love my accent! Now everyone's got one!" BH's loss of specialness is directly attributable to the pathetic condition of the American dollar. After it dipped to nearly $2 to £1, British Airways added an extra flight a day to accommodate British Christmas shopping trips, and the UK newspapers are full of price comparisons of iPods and designer handbags/purses in London versus New York, with analyses of whether it's worth the trip, once you've paid airfare and import duty. Depending on what and how much you're buying, it very well may be worth it. On other comparisons of NYC and London, BH and I agreed that NYC wins on the politeness and helpfulness of its citizenry (one cannot open a map/guidebook in public without someone approaching you to offer their help), while London wins on the relative pleasantness of its underground (=AmE subway) trains and stations--though NYC definitely wins on the cost of public transport(ation).

While we don't turn our noses up at the bargains, our reason for being here is to visit family and friends for the holidays. While visiting with the first couple, The Interpreters, I had my first cross-cultural miscommunication of the trip. BH was telling tales from our previous busy day, during which we went to the theatre and the cinema. After asking for a repetition of "the theatre and the cinema", Interpreter S noted to Interpreter K "I would've said we went to the movies and a play. Theatre and cinema sounds so much better." We had seen the new Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration, which BH liked better than I did, though I told The Interpreters about my continued affection for Parker Posey. Upon hearing this, Interpreter S said "I went to school with Parker Posey." Since I'd been under the impression that Parker Posey had grown up in Mississippi, and that Interpreter S most certainly hadn't, I was (BrE informal) well confused and asked which school that was. "SUNY Purchase," IS responded. And there was my "a-ha" moment. When AmE speakers say "I went to school there," they often mean 'I went to (BrE) university/(AmE) college there'. (SUNY Purchase = State University of New York at Purchase.) In BrE, school denotes primary or secondary school, but not university.

It's not common for me to misunderstand Americans speaking AmE. Perhaps I became more British than I reali{s/z}ed last Wednesday!


  1. It is even more confusing when someone talks only of a theatre: BE "theatre" usually means a playhouse, while AE "theater" may mean a playhouse (often spelled theatre), but mostly means a cinema.

  2. If I were asked by an American what Blue Peter was, I would be very tempted to say that it's a kind of maritime signal flag. Which would be correct, but probably unhelpful in context and rather mean of me.

  3. the syb: you are using "mean" in the American sense. What a tease!

  4. Congratulations on the British citizenship, Lynne. However, as you are now a subject of Her Majesty, but speak with a North American accent, I rather suspect that you may in fact be secretly Canadian.

    I recall that there was an urban myth some years back that there was no such thing as a British Citizen, the evidence for this being that a British passport allegedly did not declare the holder to be a citizen, but rather a subject (of Her Britannic Majesty, etc etc).

    However, since the abolition of the British Passport, I see that the rather flimsy document which has replaced it (issued by some institution operating under the name of "European Community") does declare the holder to be a "British Citizen", so if this urban myth ever was true, it isn't now.

    As for retaining your American citizenship, I think that the same applies to this as to British citizenship (and probably to citizenship of other countries): once acquired, citizenship can neither be removed nor renounced. So you're stuck with citizenship of both countries, for good. As an American citizen, you cannot be protected by Her Majesty's Representatives against the authorities of the United States, and as a British citizen, you cannot be protected by the authorities of the United States against Her Majesty's Representatives. (Was this really a good idea?).

    Still, I'm sure it will be a relief, now that you are British, that you will no longer have to wake up each morning, as does most of the population of the world, to the awful realisation: "I'm not British! I'm a foreigner!".

    Your lifetime supply of mushy peas can be collected, subject to presentation of suitable identification, from Her Majesty's Post Office, after your return from the former colonies.

  5. Straw, thank you for the eloquent welcome(?). I miss the place already.

    Dearie, while that sense of mean was originally AmE, it's been used in the UK since the 19th century. If George Eliot could use it, the syb should be allowed to as well!

  6. Yes, having checked it out (on Wikipedia, of course) I see that I was wrong about the impossibility of citizenship being revoked or renounced, but making things up off the top of your head is much more fun than checking the facts, as any journalist will tell you.

    I'm certainly glad to discover that descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover(1630-1714) may hold British Overseas citizenship based on their status as British subjects before 1949. I was becoming somewhat concerned for them, but then, I'd obviously overloooked the Act for the Naturalization of the Most Excellent Princess Sophia, Electress and Duchess Dowager of Hanover, and the Issue of her Body(1705).

  7. But the US govt can't reject me as a citizen for having pledged my allegiance to the Queen. The Supreme Court decided this first in Afroyim v Rusk and then moreso in Vance v. Terrazas.

  8. Strawman said, "As for retaining your American citizenship, I think that the same applies to this as to British citizenship (and probably to citizenship of other countries): once acquired, citizenship can neither be removed nor renounced."

    This is not entirely true, and used to be less true than it is now.

    Before [sometime in the mid-nineties], the US government was very upset with you if you wanted to be a US citizen at the same time as being a citizen of somewhere else. Adults naturalizing elsewhere were ... tolerated, but if you were a child born with multiple citizenship (say, as in the case of my husband, a baby born in Toronto to parents who held, respectively, American and British citizenship, and registered all their children at birth all three ways), when you reached majority the US, assuming they were one of your multiples, insisted that you PICK ONE. Or, at least, you pick to BE AMERICAN or pick to be NOT AMERICAN. If you picked the former, you renounced all other options, and were no longer a citizen of those countries (though you could naturalize it back if you wanted). If the latter, the US washed its hands of you and you lost all US-citizen privileges and responsibilities.

    It's muddier now, but they actually tolerate multiples far better than they used to. However, keep in mind -- from the POV of the US, if you have US citizenship that is the ONLY citizenship they will consider valid in any dealings between you and the US government. No claiming to be a foreign national and insisting to be deported in case of a crime or something, etc.

    Also you have to use your US passport to enter the US (and your Canadian, if you have one, to enter Canada! So my husband has to bring both along any time we cross the border).

  9. And, of course, while I was typing all that, five more comments came in betwixt and between!

    Ahh, life on the internet. :->

  10. 19th century? See, I was right; it's a dangerous innovation.

  11. CONGRATULATIONS! You've achieved what I hope to in about 3 years. I had thought I'd be eligible for ILR tomorrow, but (as you know, I'm sure) the rules changed last April. Now I have to be here FIVE years. So once I get ILR NEXT December, I think I have another 2 years to wait before citizenship.

    I could have gone the route of a Spousal Visa (as John's a British citizen) but we like the idea of my doing this all on my own.

    Anyway, I'm envious while I send my congratulations! A British blogger named Andrew -- who blogs as "The Gunsmoke Files" -- just recently got his American citizenship. You might enjoy some of his comments about the process. There's a link on Lord Celery.

    AND, by the way, I've made that "school" mistake a number of times over here.

    John and I are headed back to Houston for about 10 days next week. I wonder how my friends there will react to changes in MY word usuage?!?!?!



  12. Is it just the British, I wonder, who refer to the process of becoming a citizen or subject of their country/monarch as naturalisation? Do we mean that being British is the natural way for everyone to be and that the process simply puts things right?

    On the citizen/subject thing, there was a bit of a stink a few years ago when passports started calling us European Union citizens. As Ms Guist demonstrated on Wednesday, Brits' allegiance is to the crown, not to the constitution or other institutions of a republic, which citizen connotes. As to what the crown is, it's a good bit more than just a fancy hat, and needs a blog of its own to discuss.

    If London's underground/subway is relatively pleasant, I shudder to think what New York's must be like. BTW, I'd suggest that saying one was well confused, wasn't standard BrE but a bit chav/estuary.

    I note that Ms Guist uses primary and secondary to describes types of school, but I presume that those terms don't export. I sometimes have to edit text that originates in the US and need to find a table where I can look up what, for example, an eighth grader is.

    In BrE you have two concurrent systems for saying which school-year (form) a person is in. The archaic scheme used to go back to one at least twice, sometimes three or four times (first year infants, first year juniors, first year secondary and first year sixth form). The sixth form covered your sixth and seventh, or your fifth and sixth year of secondary education. The modern scheme, I believe, starts at one when you're aged five and keeps going however many types of school you attend, though sixth form still carries a cachet and it sometimes used, though it won't have students in it who are year sixes. When I edit for an international readership, though, I ignore all systems and try to find out how old the kids are.

    I've always been puzzled as to how American children managed to graduate so young, yet am I right in thinking that it's actually the process of leaving high/secondary school at, perhaps, 16? In BrE the term is university-only.

    And if anyone does know who has the right of way at a roundabout, would they kindly tell a few motorists I know? Oh, and also tell them what box-junctions are about. Here's one for you: what's the speed-limit on single-carriageway British roads that don't have any streetlamps or limit-signs? Get it right and you can be a British citizen/subject in time for BrE Christmas/AmE the holidays.

  13. Janet--thanks for the good wishes.

    Paul--where do I start? The beginning is a very good place to start, or so I hear. So:

    Naturali{s/z}ation is an international term, as is evidenced by the name of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (of which my grandad was an employee--keeping those pesky Canadians from stealing American jobs, or something).

    On well confused--Estuary, maybe, but certainly in broader social distribution than just chavhood (chavity? what do we call chavs as "a people"?). I did mark it as 'informal', but I kinda like it.

    Primary and secondary are perfectly understandable in AmE, though they're not as usual as in BrE and the boundary between them may be more problematic--what with concepts like 'middle school' and 'junior high' floating about. I'm not going to try to answer the whole grade/year/school level issue here--will do a separate entry on it soon.

    The verb graduate is used quite freely in AmE. Children 'graduate' from kindergarten (usually with mortarboards made from construction paper) and might also 'graduate' from junior high, etc. Myself, I graduated from kindergarten, my primary school (K-8), high school, then three more graduations for university degrees. That is to say, there were ceremonies with the giving of a diploma at each of these stages. A student leaving school at 16 would not graduate (unless they were particularly young for their grade/year), as that's not when high school ends in the US, but I'll cover that in the promised entry on school levels.

    Getting a UK (BrE) driving licence /(AmE) driver's license is my next project--though I can't imagine it'll happen anytime soon. So I'll put off studying the highway code and answering your last question until then!

  14. The sharp-eyed reader will have spotted that the law to which I refer above, passed by the English* Parliament just over three hundred years ago (you remember, the one about Princess Sophia and the Issue of her Body), uses the spelling Naturalization, not Naturalisation. The -ise/-isation ending is clearly a dangerous innovation, as dearieme would say, and must therefore be the fault of ...oh! Not the Americans? Oh dear!

    (*Still English Parliament, not British Parliament: this was 1705, after all).

  15. Thanks, Lynneguist, for that clarification of the usage of the word "mean". I know that the way I used it was of more recent origin than, for example, as a synonym for ignoble or shabby - I hadn't realised it was originally AmE, though. Dearieme quite confused me!

  16. I did affirm my allegiance to the Queen, her heirs and successors. My UK-born friends think this is hilarious, as they've never had to do so

    As a Cub Scout and then a Scout (in the UK) I was required to salute the Union Flag and to promise to do my duty to God and the Queen at the start of every weekly session. Not something I'm proud of now.

  17. Of course the Blue Peter is a signal flag? What else? :-)

    As for naturalization, the reason that it's called that is that it makes an alien into someone equivalent to a natural-born citizen. The word "citizen" has very old roots in U.K. law, particularly when used in opposition to "denizen" or "alien"; it is by no means exclusively associated with republics.

    The British Nationality Act 1981 erected an artificial distinction between "British citizen" (most of you) and "British subject". The latter is a second-class status in which someone is a subject of the Queen in right of the United Kingdom (as opposed to one of the other nations of which she is sovereign) but does not have the rights of British citizenship. These are people who would otherwise be stateless.

    However, the term "British subject" in older documents is interpreted as "Commonwealth citizen", the term for anyone born within the ligeance.

  18. Quoth John Cowan:
    However, the term "British subject" in older documents is interpreted as "Commonwealth citizen", the term for anyone born within the ligeance.

    Funny you should mention that. Reading the stream of comments, someone had mentioned that mme guist may be more Canadian than British. Canada actually declared its own independent form of citizenship in 1947, the first Commonwealth nation to make a distinction from being simple British subjects. Therefore my uncle–born before 1947–enjoys the status of British subject and Canadian citizen; my parents, born afterward, do not.

    This (if my mother is to be believed) would be one of the reasons why nations like Australia today enjoy a better relationship with the UK government than does Canada.

    In Canada, of course, our citizenship ceremonies also involve an oath to the Queen -- except in this case, Libby plays the role of Queen of Canada (and not Queen of the U.K.o.G.B.a.N.I., Defender of the Faith, et al.).

  19. Ok, do I count this as my 6th instance of being mistaken for Canadian? (See here if you want to know what I'm talking about.)

  20. I cannot imagine why anyone would retain US citizenship. This is not said out of any dire anti-Americanism, rabid nationalism, etc. It's simply that the USA requires its citizens to file a tax return and pay tax on worldwide income, no matter where they live and no matter how long that they have been non-resident in the USA. Most other countries do not do this. Non-resident citizens have no tax obligations.
    There is a a tale, possibly apocryphal, that Maria Callas, a dual Greek/US citizen, achieved two things by renouncing US citizenship - she relieved herself of any US tax obligations and she got rid of an unwanted husband. At that time, marriages of Greeks were only legal if performed in the Orthodox Church.
    Smart move!
    Terry Gilliam was born in the USA but holds British citizenship. He has renounced his US citizenship and, in a television interview, he said that when he visits the USA he is allowed a shorter stay than most other Brits.
    Vindictive bunch, aren't they?

  21. You have to make quite a bit (at least as far as an academic like me is concerned) before you have to pay tax as a non-resident citizen. So, for the time being, it's better for me to retain both and have the rights of a citizen in US. But it is a stupid, stupid policy.

  22. I can see why Lynne would want to become a British Citizen, she works, lives,loves and Mothers there, but I can not understand why any American would want to renounce their citizenship....Seems wrong to me to deny who you are.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)