(out) in the country(side)

In the hope of having a weekend, I wasn't going to write a long blot post this week. This really has taken over my Sundays the last few weeks. But then I started writing another monster post. About 1/3 into it, I reali{s/z}ed I'd need to explain this little thing about country and countryside. So, I've pivoted to writing this shorter thing and am ahead of the game for next week's post too. Yay.

So.

Country is a polysemous word—it has multiple meanings. And those meanings can create real ambiguities. For instance:

Lynne has lived in the country for 20 years.

That sentence is true on the 'national territory' meaning of country, but false on the 'rural area' meaning of country, since I have lived in a particular national territory (the UK) for 20 years, but I've lived in a city (Brighton) for all of those 20 years (well, technically it was a town when I moved here).

Most of the time, such ambiguities don't bother us. If Sid goes for a walk in the country, we assume the 'rural' meaning is in play; we don't feel the need to ask "Which country was it? Was it Norway?". 

The word countryside serves to make it clear that we're talking about the 'rural' kind of country. It exists in both AmE and BrE, but it is used several times more in BrE than in AmE and the uses are a bit different.
the British countryside
according to Fur Feather and Fin

A straight comparison of countryside in the two Englishes is not very helpful because of the existence in the UK of the Countryside Alliance, a lobbying group that gets in the news a lot for its promotion and defen{c/s}e of "countryside activities", which include the very controversial practice of fox-hunting. Statistics for the word countryside on its own will be biased by that name.

So instead, here's a look at "[verb]ing in the countryside", which gives a clear picture that countryside is common in BrE in contexts in which it's not in AmE. (Click on images if you'd like them bigger.)


I grew up in a small town in a rural county of New York state. When we talked about where our classmates lived, we'd never have said in the countryside, we'd say out in the country. The out there is doing the same kind of work the -side in countryside can do:


When I looked at AmE uses of countryside, a lot seemed to be about tourism to other places— visiting the Italian countryside and such. It's in those kinds of contexts where AmE use of countryside starts to equal BrE use:


In a recent post about birds, I mentioned that the country(side) occupies very different place in British and American lives and self-mythologies. Countryside in both Englishes (I think, but I could be wrong)— has the feel of a more idealized kind of place—with green hills and farmhouses, whereas out in the country for me is more neutral in terms of what the scenery is—we just used it to mean 'not within the village boundaries' (in my area of NYS, could be woods, could be farm, could an out-of-town [AmE] trailer park). The US has more types of non-urban landscape than the UK, much more wilderness, and a relatively recent history of even more (and more dangerous) wilderness. It's inevitable, really, that talking about the country(side) will bring up different connotations depending on where you're from. I haven't included an illustration for AmE 'out in the country' because the image search mostly brought up pics of small towns and highways. Looking for rural scenery, there's just too much variation to pick something 'typical' of American experience.


43 comments

  1. Escape to the Country TV program. No way would that work in the U. S. No Grade I, II, III listed, no local building stone, no relationship to Industrial Revolution, no Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, etc.

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    1. National Register of Historic Places, plenty of local building stone if you look in the right places (e.g. Wissahickon Schist in the western edges of the Delaware Valley), not to mention adobe and also timber frame construction that while still niche in the US, is much more common than in the UK. The AoONB designation has no real equivalent here - even though the USA has (relatively speaking) very large amounts of protected land based on rural/recreational designations, the overwhelming majority of it cannot be built on or in.

      But going to a higher level ... I've watched numerous episodes of EttC, both in the UK with my parents and on my own in the US, and although some of the cultural foibles it documents have no obvious equivalent in the US, the overall sense of it translates very well I think. Lots of people plan their "escape" to more rural living for all the same reasons, and particularly places like New England and the less elevated areas all along the edges of the Appalachians have a lot of the same historical and cultural connotations as the favored destinations for that show.

      ps. Last year I moved (after 22 years) from Philadelphia to a tiny village in New Mexico. We're located in a basin with human presence going back at least 4000 years, and the village itself going back at least as far as the late 1500s. The village is half-filled with people who've all done similar moves.

      pps. What is deeply wierd about EttC is that its really just a show about looking inside other people's houses. The number of episodes that don't even reach a conclusion is amazing.

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    2. In Australia the same program is called, "Escape from the City".

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    3. But then again, as I understand it, Australia has the additional concept of MAMBA country (Miles And Miles of B. All)

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  2. My feeling is that in AmE, "out in the country" only works in areas that are approximately similar to BrE countryside -- as you say, could be farms or woods or maybe an open grassy area. But if you were in Southern California, say, you would talk about going out into the desert, and if you were in western Colorado you would talk about going up into the mountains. In fact, I suspect "out in the country" wouldn't sound very natural in most places west of the Mississippi.

    But I could be wrong about that. I've lived 30ish years east of the Mississippi and only one on the other side.

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    1. There is also the designation of location in AmE: Out in the country, Way out in the country (in the middle of no where, completely isolated), but also "up north" (in NYS means the mountains), Up in the mountains, at the beach. Countryside seems to me a stagnant area with boundaries near a city or suburb. I always have the impression that "countryside" is planned rural areas.

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    2. I grew up (and still live) in Texas, where I make the same distinction as Lynne between "countryside" and "out in the country." "In the country" means "in the sticks" as mentioned below, and lots of people all over Texas live there. So yeah, we use that west of the Mississippi, too.

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    3. David. I think I agree with your basic assertion that not all landscapes can realistically be called "out in the country." But you seriously underestimate the amount of farmland west of the Mississippi. The vast, vast majority of farmland in the US is west of the Mississippi, and the vast majority of places that could realistically be called "out in the country" are also west of the Mississippi (measured by land area but perhaps not measured by population). I found references to "out in the country" for outerring suburbs or exurbs of many western cities (Tule Springs near Las Vegas, Parker near Denver, Napa Valley, Florence near Phoenix, the outskirts of Barstow and Bakersfield, etc.). I also found a few historical references to "out in the country" related to Los Angeles, mostly talking about, e.g., "when the San Fernando Valley [or other place] was out in the country." It seems that since LA is boxed in by undevelopable mountains and deserts, they've developed everything that could've once been "out in the country."

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    4. djw's point about 'in the sticks' (or 'Styx', thank you P.G.Wodehouse for that illumination!) came to my mind also. Plus, the difference the article makes doesn't seem to have been considered, i.e. 'a country' as opposed to 'the country', and the fact that it is always 'the countryside'. I am a Brit English speaker, by the way.

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    5. Joel T. and djw -- thanks for your responses. Because I'm originally from the UK I think my conception of what 'country' means is still colored my my upbringing, and it doesn't quite accord with how I think of sparsely population areas in the US. But that's my problem.

      It occurred to me later that friends of mine in New Hampshire refer to the upper half of the state as the "North Country." And I remembered that there's a Colorado-based publication, The High Country News, which is not (as I first thought) a magazine for people who enjoy the weed, but is about life and politics in the Rockies.

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    6. *is still colored BY my upbringing...

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  3. Growing up in The North (Alaska), I heard both terms in media but never used them. I presume this is because we have vanishingly little agriculture. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Yukon and the situation is the same there. People will name the geographic area they’re going to – “I’m going up Smart River” – or will say something like “out in the bush”, “out in the wilderness”, or just “out somewhere”.

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    1. As someone who has lived in the Yukon for most of my life let me confirm that we never refer to "country" or "countryside" but instead to going "out in the bush" as James Crippen states or even more commonly, "out on the land". And a person who spends too much time on their own on the land has "cabin fever" which I know is not a phrase exclusive to the North, or is "bushed".

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  4. A little bit of trivia: On the Falkland Islands, the inhabitants (population c.3200 as at 2016 not counting the British Forces garrison) refer to the country(side), ie anywhere outside the capital Stanley, as the camp, presumably from the Spanish word for countryside.

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  5. I'd (Southern BrE, elderly) say I grew up in the country (which I did, not a million miles from Brighton!) But I would also say that "The British countryside looks glorious at this time of year!" (which it does). A subtle distinction, and I'm not quite sure how to dissect it. Anybody?

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    1. An attempt: "the country" is a location (with a localized meaning depending on where it is said). "the countryside" is a type of place, which may vary a little depending on which bit of countryside it refers to, but it definitely isn't a location.

      (BrE 0-25; AmE 25-56)

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    2. I think 'the country' just means 'outside town', whereas 'the countryside' is used for something more romanticised, idyllic, etc. That's what I was trying to get at in the post.

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  6. Interestingly, I, an American Midwesterner, have a similar Sprachgefuehl for "countryside" as Mrs. Redboots. To me it suggests rural scenery. I would never say someone living in rural Minnesota was living in the countryside, but I might say something like, "The countryside was beautiful on the way up here."

    Incidentally, it occurs to me that I would probably not even say someone lived "in the country" when talking about the U.S. I might refer to "upstate Minnesota" or "rural Wisconsin". However, I have used it in reference to rural Japan. I don't know if that's influence from the Japanese word "inaka", which is often used to refer to any non-urbanized area (and, if you live in Tokyo, anywhere that is not Tokyo!)

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    1. It is actually (or used to be) "outstate Minnesota", meaning anywhere west, north, or south of the Twin Ciites (east is Wisconsin!). One of our governors insisted on "greater Minnesota' so that's used now. Silly term, "greater" is used for cities not states. Great New York City area etc.

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    2. I'd say you're talking about a different kind of thing there, Josh. You're talking about how people talk about the expanses of a state that are not its major city. I'm talking about how we differentiate between town and country(side). Where I'm from is upstate New York, whether you're in the village/town or not. But within upstate, we're making a distinction between people who live 'out in the country' and people who live in a built-up or incorporated area. You can live 'out in the country in upstate NY' or you can live 'in a small city in upstate NY'. 'Upstate' is not doing the job that 'in the country' does.

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    3. I concur with Lynne about this distinction, but I do think there may be more slippage between these two kinds of things than we realize. I lived in Kansas for a long time, a state where more than half the people lives in four population centers in the eastern half of the state (Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka, and Wichita). I went to college at the state flagship university and met many people from the smaller cities that dot the western part of the state (e.g., Dodge City, pop. 27,000), and generally speaking those of us from the four major population centers considered these people to be "from the country" even if they had lived in town. Those people bristled at that characterization, though, because to them being "from the country" meant those who didn't live in town.

      It's sorta like The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy goes into Raleigh, he's the country sheriff, but when he's in Mayberry, he's from town and the Darlings are from the country.

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    4. My use of "upstate Minnesota" was probably poor word choice, given the specific meaning attached to "upstate New York." My intention was to talk about the expanses between particular cities/towns (which in Minnesota manifests itself largely as stretches of farmland). Certainly Duluth, while "upstate" or (outstate) Minnesota, is neither rural, nor the country/countryside, and not really what I had in mind.

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  7. BrE, Scot. Those less susceptible to rural charms will often talk about “living in the sticks” or “out in the sticks”. To me, this has the feel of an Americanism, but I’m probably wrong.

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    1. It was originally American. I thought I'd blogged about that one before, but it turns out I'd blogged about BrE 'up sticks'. Have discussed related things on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lynneguist/status/915215240228474880

      This would make a good post topic, but as usual, the more it's discussed in the comments, the less likely it is that I'll bother to do it as a post!

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    2. I may well have first heard it from an American, but I rather think it is universal these days.

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  8. When I saw the picture Lynne included to represent a typical example of British countryside, I thought ‹that doesn't look right›, but I couldn't put my finger on why.
    It's certainly an attractive bit of rural scenery, and indubitably a 'country landscape' but it somehow doesn't quite match my conception of "countryside".
    I've just realised why: there are no hedgerows.
    Maybe it's just because I grew up in the South of England, but to me, the word 'countryside' implies hedgerows.

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    1. Good point—they're certainly present in a lot of other 'countryside' images on Google. That was just a prominent one when I searched.

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    2. Remembering my school geography lessons, I think the rounded valley in the background suggests glaciation and that the picture is taken north-west of the Tees-Exe line. Looks like sheep in the foreground, and probably drystone walls rather than hedgerows. (I grew up just north of the mouth of the River Tees. Lots of countryside like that there.)

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    3. And the British countryside is mostly green (apart from the brown mud when it's been raining). Mostly unthreatening (no bears, few poisonous snakes...) so it is more domestic and friendly to walk in than a large US National Park, for instance.
      A few years ago, when travelling in a campervan in the Rockies and Pacific North West of the USA, I met a young woman from Utah who told me she had read about 'undergrowth' but hadn't known what was meant until she went into a forest. And actually there isn't much undergrowth in those mostly pine forests.

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    4. the UK actually covers both extremes ... you have the upland regions which are largely deforested and completely walkable (legally, too, in Scotland), and then lower level woods and forests where if there is no path, you're going to have a hard time.

      There are (almost) no completely deforested upland regions in N. America (unless you include current clearcutting). Upland regions differ greatly depending on rainfall: you will never go cross country in forests west of the Cascades/Sierra crest, because of too much undergrowth, nor likely in the eastern forests. Those in the inter-mountain west, which deal with much lower rainfall, do have a lot less undergrowth, and can be generally be freely traversed, barring terrain issues (steepness/cliffs). Still nothing like the Scottish Highlands though :)


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    5. Paul Dormer's comment above makes me wonder if perhaps our understanding of the term 'countryside' depends not only on which side of the Atlantic we are from, but even, within Britain, on which side of the Tees-Exe line we are from...
      And on a related point, I found this interesting article on the web-site of the Campaign For the Protection of Rural England (who, incidentally, have recently re-branded themselves as "CPRE The Countryside Charity"):
      https://www.cpre.org.uk/discover/a-natural-history-of-hedgerows/
      I hadn't realised quite how ancient the pattern of hedgerows in our countryside is. It goes back to the Bronze Age, apparently, or maybe even as far back as Neolithic times.
      The author contrasts the rural landscapes of Southern England with those of Germany and The Netherlands, from which, it seems, hedgerows are largely absent.
      Presumably, then, hedgerows that a Southern English person like me would recognise as such must also be rare in the Americas.
      So I wonder... do English speakers in North America even use the word 'hedgerow'?

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    6. Grhm:
      I would say probably not. There might be some in the farming areas of the Northeast US, but not in the West and not in Midwest where I live now. For example, here is a random Google Earth picture of some farmland in eastern Kansas: https://www.google.com/maps/@38.439773,-95.3346919,1742m/data=!3m1!1e3
      You will note that there are lots random lines of green, which are streams and such, but many heavy green straight lines marking field boundaries. These are not your hedgerows. They're tree lines. Most of the remaining fields will be surrounded by fence lines, primarily made from wire mesh (we called it hogwire when I was a kid in California, but I'm sure there are other names) topped with barb wire. The tree lines are fairly recent--most were planted in the 1930's to combat the Dustbowl by slowing the wind and stopping soil erosion. You can walk right through the tree lines, though will probably have to climb a fence and maybe dodge some poison ivy. Tree lines can certainly get overgrown with underbrush, but they are generally as flat as the ground around them.

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    7. Kirk:
      Really interesting pictures and info, thank you.
      Unfortunately, owing to neglect, many of our so-called 'hedgerows' are nowadays being augmented and/or replaced with barb[ed] wire, and as a result end up not dissimilar to your description of 'tree lines'. The exceedingly uneven and gappy one you can see in the foreground of my picture of Dorset is, sadly, not untypical.

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  9. There's a related difference I think. In both, a National Park is supposed to be recreational in some way, a place where urban dwellers can recharge their emotional batteries. Nevertheless, I get the impression that in the US, a National Park is a large area of preserved wilderness, from which resident humans are excluded, in some cases evicted. In the UK not only are National Parks inhabited but this is a major part of their attraction. Particularly in England and Wales, a National Park is an area where the traditional way it was farmed, and the traditional style of buildings are a very important part feature, with special planning regimes to ensure that development is controlled to harmonise with it.

    This may be related to the way that the British Isles have been intensively tilled since at least the Bronze Age. The bulk of the present inhabitants are descended from the people who did that tilling. Taming the wilderness, 'how the west was won', is not part of British ancestral memory in the way an agricultural pre-industrial Britain is.

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  10. I did my MA research on the definition of "country," albeit from a rather different angle, studying how people define the genre of music called "country," which is much more contested and fraught than outsiders may realize. There's all sorts of conceptual slippage going on when people in the US think about "country," some of which is part of the foundational myths of country music that I studied: conflating rural and rustic, conflating country and southern (or even Confederate, hence all the Dixie flags in the rural north), conflating country and western (which also actually used to be two different genres of music), conflating country with whiteness (parallel to urban being conflated with Blackness), conflating country with a glorified, ahistorical preindustrial and/or antebellum past (modern barnyard and plantation weddings). Mix all of this with various forms of American (ethno)nationalism (the other basic definition of "country"), and you've got a pretty dysfunctional stew for what "country" can mean to us in the United States.

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  11. Is anybody else earwormed, as I am whenever I read a comment on this post, by Cliff Richard's song "In the Country"?

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    1. I don't think I even know it. Better not google it, just in case.

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    2. I'm thinking of Presidents of the United States' "Peaches." And also some Barbara Mandrell, Donny and Marie, and Hank III.

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    3. No, I'm earwormed by Blur's Country House, which contains the lyric "in the country" a lot.

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  12. Working in the EFL industry as an American, I use the word "countryside" with English learners much, much more than I ever did or do with native AmE speakers.("Country" runs into direct confusion from the two general meanings.) The phrase that feels most natural to me to refer to non-urban settings where people live in small communities is "rural areas".

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  13. I kept thinking of Three Dog Night as I read this article

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  14. I think there's a US/UK difference in attitudes to living in the country. To a first approximation, Americans seem to see it as backwards and unsophisticated ("hick" "in the sticks"), whereas Brits see it as posh (country club, horse riding, fox hunting). This might be related to the relative scarcity and hence cost of rural land in the two nations.

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