Win a copy of Britannia in Brief!

Welcome to the first SbaCL book review--one of many to come, I hope. Thanks to the folks at Tandem Literary and Ballantine Books, we can celebrate this first review with a chance to win the book. Read further for details.

Today's book is Britannia in Brief: The Scoop on All Things British by Leslie Banker and William Mullins (Ballantine, 2009), an American wife and British husband team. In other words, here's the book that Better Half and I could have written if we'd thought of it first and weren't so gloriously behind schedule with everything else in our lives--like the laundry. Especially the laundry.

The book does what it says on its label: it is a sort of (AmE) Cliff Notes/(BrE) York Notes for Americans wanting to (orig. AmE) bone up on Britain. The chapters cover the geography and history, social structures, arts and culture, politics and government, food and drink, language and daily practicalities of UK life. Having been here 10 years, I didn't learn a lot reading this book--but, boy, if I'd had it 10 years ago, it would have saved a lot of people a lot of explaining. When I first sat down with the book, I tested it by looking up the things that I thought should be in it. Blue Peter? (AmE) check/(BrE) tick. Newspaper slants and allegiances? √ The 1966 World Cup? √ Jeffrey Archer? √ It passed all of my tests but one...but we'll get back to that.

The parts I found most helpful (as a long-standing resident) were in the first chapter--though I'm sure that newer arrivals will find the quotidian and cultural aspects the most immediately gratifying. The section entitled 'Snapshots of British History' starts with Julius Caesar and end with the 7/7 bombings of 2005, filling in enough details on the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Britain and the Falklands War to give an American a sense of what these things were about. The longer section on Northern Ireland similarly outlines the Troubles and gives the sage advice that "it's better not to express any opinions on the matter of Northern Ireland unless explicitly asked. [...] All in all, it's just better to say that you hope things work out."

What about the bits on language? While there is a chapter on language, there's plenty of vocabulary information throughout the book, including a very useful two-page list of acronyms toward(s) the end. (There's also a two-page glossary, which hits some important words, but whether it includes the one you'll need to look up--well, that's another matter.) The language chapter provides some names whose pronunciation needs explanation (e.g. Leicester = "lester", Berkeley = "barclay") and an introduction to Cockney Rhyming Slang. These are followed by a couple of zesty sections on words with 'dirty' meanings in BrE (but not in AmE) and ratings of how offensive "swear words" are--with handy thermometer graphics. A section on the Welsh language serves the authors' obsession with the alleged lack of vowels in Welsh. (I lost count of how many times 'unpronounceable' and 'Welsh' co-occured in the other chapters.) For the record, Welsh has plenty of vowels, it just spells them with different letters than the English use. I didn't always agree with their list of 'prevalent British names rarely heard in the US'--sometimes because I thought the names weren't particularly prevalent in the UK, but mostly because they left Nicola off the girls' list. But these are minor points.

The book ends with a quiz that should probably replace the UK Citizenship test, since it tests things that UK citizens generally know, like the name of the pub on Coronation Street and who Brenda and Phil the Greek are (unlike the real test, whose questions native-born citizens typically fail).

The book is terrifically up-to-date, which does mean it'll become outdated all the faster. And this may be its failing in the one section that I found really wanting: the 'British comic gems you may be less familiar with'. Appropriately, this starts with the Carry On films. But it then hops on to Monty Python--which (a) is not something anyone is less familiar with (as they acknowledge), and (b) overshoots The Goon Show (and particularly Spike Milligan), which was one of the first things I tried to look up in the book (and one of the greatest influences on Python). The other comedians listed are all currently practicing, and some of them have crossed the pond rather often. Rather than Steve Coogan and Catherine Tate (whom I'd run into soon enough if I were a [orig. AmE] newbie to Britain), I would have liked to have read about the Goons, Tony Hancock, the Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise--the types of comedians who influenced later ones and whose presence is still felt--albeit a little more obliquely than the Coogans and Tates--in the culture. In other words, with such a rich comedic history, it's a shame to have so much focus on the present.

But that's one section of one chapter in an otherwise surprisingly comprehensive book. The authors have shown a real knack for getting to the heart of Britishness and presenting it in bite-size helpings. I'd heartily recommend this book for any (North) American who:
  • is about to embark on a year abroad/work placement/move to the UK
  • is going to visit people in Britain
  • is in love with someone in Britain
  • is slightly obsessive about Britain
And here's your chance to own a copy. Your task, should you choose to compete, is to write a (preferably humorous) limerick illustrating a US/UK cultural misunderstanding. Make your submission to the comments section. (Make them clean-ish, please.) Other readers are welcome to weigh in on which they think are the wittiest and best written, which will influence the judges (three of my friends and me) when we make our decision on 30 June. In order to enter, make sure we have a way to contact you--either through your Blogger profile or by sending an e-mail to me with your e-mail details. Happy limericking!


  1. Jimmie Riddle17 June, 2009 11:46

    I hope this is clean-ish enough:

    There once was a Yank called Randy
    Whose stick-shift was all fine and dandy
    He once slashed his knickers
    When playing with stickers
    After eating a pastie with Shandy

  2. Don't forget to email me your contact details, in case you're the winner!

  3. There was a young lady called Annie
    Ashamed of the size of her fanny
    She said, "Doctor, reduce it.
    I just want to lose it."
    And now she's completely sans cranny.

  4. Jimmie's limerick definitely passes the cultural misunderstanding test for me. I don't know what playing with stickers is and I can't get the punch line.

  5. Jimmie's limerick definitely passes the cultural misunderstanding test for me. I don't know what playing with stickers is and I can't get the punch line.

  6. A British friend once asked for advice,
    Since I'd traveled to Egypt. (It's nice!)
    She asked what I wore,
    So's not to look like a whore,
    "Oh, a t-shirt and pants will suffice."

    (True story-- she looked shocked, I hastily corrected myself, "TROUSERS!!" and we had a good laugh.)

  7. There was a young Anglican miss
    Who liked to go out on the piss
    She wasn’t a slag
    But she liked a quick fag
    And, sometimes, a decorous kiss.

  8. Do note that the requirement is for something that 'illustrates' a cross-cultural misunderstanding--not just something that's not understandable to the other group! I'd say some of these qualify, and some don't!

  9. I just read this too and found the harping about Welsh language to be obnoxious. I counted "unpronounceable" at least 2-3 times, and kept thinking, "well, YOU just don't know how to pronounce it, the Welsh actually do!"

  10. At the Stratford B&B

    A Derbyshire man name of Joe
    (The wick in his head burning low)
    Asked me, "Baby, wassup?
    Could I please knock you up?"
    And I overslept, 'cause I said no.

  11. An American tourist named Barbie
    Found herself in the high street in Derby.
    She said, "Do you by chance
    have some nice khaki pants?"
    Said the clerk to himself, "Is she barmy?"

  12. Not to bothered about the prize, but here's my pathetic effort.

    A Briton upbraided a yank,
    For rudely failing to thank,
    "Why don't you say 'cheers'?"
    "We don't have any beers!"
    "Oh what a load of old rubbish."

  13. Jimmie Riddle. Lmao.

  14. An eager young Yank on the make
    Thought he'd finally had his big break.
    She asked for a rubber
    but she wasn't a scrubber.
    Just had to erase a mistake.

  15. "I'll arrive there at noon 7/6"
    I told my Yank friend from the sticks.
    But I got there too soon -
    On the seventh of June -
    Since for him 7/6 was July sixth.

    Richard English

  16. Said the driver, who'd stopped at the quarry,
    "I'm sorry I just parked my lorry.
    I needed a drag
    So I stopped for a fag.
    If I've broken the law then I'm sorry".

    Richard English

  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. "A pint please, and make it Imperial,
    A size that is quite magisterial.
    The American measure
    Will give one less pleasure -
    So small it is almost ethereal"

    Richard English

  19. "Straight on, Mac. They're on the first floor"
    Said the bellhop, just inside the door.
    So I climbed up the stair
    To find nobody there -
    For the first floor's the ground - what a bore!

    Richard English

  20. At the party, Jo started to flag
    He said, could I bum a fag?
    I’m rat-arsed and pissed
    And my girlfriend’s been dissed
    By a muppet who thinks she’s a wag.

  21. Contestants may find this excellent and humorous reference to be helpful--The English to American Dictionary:

  22. In the tradition of limericks that are deliberately incomplete (young man from Verdun and so forth) how about:

    "This limerick must quickly be written!"
    Said the visiting member from Britain.
    So in need of more minds
    He tabled four lines -

    (Email address is on sidebar of blog.)

  23. My girl has a fine pair of hooters
    Attractive to gentleman suitors.
    But don't rush too far
    They're both on her car
    And she toots them to warn slow commuters.

  24. Oh, sorry, that was another one from me, Richard English

  25. "This limerick must quickly be written!"
    Said the visiting member from Britain.
    So in need of more minds
    He tabled four lines -
    coaxing a fifth from one smitten

  26. A limerick’s easy to write
    But the sentiments, they may be trite
    The form is too rigid
    It makes you look frigid
    And I’ve run out of space to say anything insightful about the differences between UK and US idiomatic usage. Sorry! Or should I say, Excuse me?

  27. My friends are from Texas and Crewe
    One said "half four" for our rendezvous
    The other said "wait!
    Why not quarter of eight?"
    We ended up meeting at two.

  28. Coming late to the party...

    A Brit said, "There's nothing more tasty
    Than sampling a savoury pasty."
    "Good grief," thought a Yank.
    "In a strip club so swank,
    You'd get punched for a caper that hasty!"


  29. OK, Ben, but you do reali{s/z?e line 2 doesn't rhyme with 1 and 5? At least not if the Brit said it!

  30. A horny young Briton named Doug,
    Gave my well-tailored shirttail a tug.
    "Would it make you gag,
    If I asked for a shag?"
    I said, "No," and I gave him a rug.

  31. Jimmie Riddle23 June, 2009 18:30

    A drunken solicitor, Dick
    Went looking for Tom, drove too quick
    He crashed his sedan
    On a sleeping policeman
    And ended up in the Nick

  32. Jimmie Riddle23 June, 2009 20:11

    At the risk of trying too hard, here is Randy mark 2:

    The American said, I'm Randy
    My stick-shift is just fine and dandy!
    The Brit said, I'm fagged,
    exquisitely shagged,
    After eating a pastie with Shandy.

  33. Laundry is highly overrated. Buy more. Especially socks.

  34. Regarding lynneguist's comment on Ben's: eye rhyme! eye rhyme! By the way, I love this blog, although I'm not a native speaker of English.

  35. A bloke offered baby a dummy,
    Which annoyed her American mummy.
    The mom started a row
    ‘Cause she didn’t know
    It’s a pacifier for her honey.

  36. Roger, doesn't "row" rhyme with "now?"

  37. Kel - In Northeast US, row rhymes with sew or no or doe or low.

  38. I'm a native Californian.

    Row (fight) rhymes with now and plow, but in my experience it is a word that is rarely, if ever, used in the U.S.

    Row (pretty maids all in a ...) rhymes with know/sew/blow.

    I remember from waaaay back in the day that homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. What do they call words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently?

  39. -----"What do they call words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently?"------

  40. Homographs! Thank you. It makes perfect sense that that is what they would be called.

  41. Jane !!

    what are the next lines of your story??


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