You know, I read something recently on ‘Anglotopia’ about some popular misconceptions our american cousins have about the British. actually it was good fun reading, and is written by an American living in the UK. I started thinking I might do a better job of it myself, with a bit of humour added in…although everything has at least some historical basis, but who says history – and social stereotypes can’t be fun? Let’s have a go at some of the most popular ones shall we?
1) We British all speak with a cockney accent and cockney rhyming slang.
This is typically the first on any list, so let’s do this one first. No, we don’t. An actual ‘Cockney’ needs to be born within earshot of ‘Bow Bells’ (the bells of Bow church in East London) which rules out most people! My nickname up here in Edinburgh is actually ‘The cockney’ but I’m not. Can I speak rhyming slang? – Yes, and very well, as my Dad is an East-End market trader and I always grew up with it, but no, I don’t use it normally, or even with my Dad. I did shout to Mrs Ricky recently; “I’m makin’ some ‘oly, you want some?” – This baffled her completely, even after adding in the ‘H’ to ‘oly to make ‘Holy’ it still left her confused. I had to explain; “Holy Ghost…Toast.” Aye well! Sadly most attempts at a cockney accent end up sounding like the God-awful version done by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins…possibly the single worst ever attempt at a cockney accent that has ever been done!! Britain actually has more accents than any other country in the world, and when you consider how small our island is, that is no mean feat!
2) England, Britain, UK…it’s all the same isn’t it?
No. This one drives people here insane, but if you look at it, it is confusing! If in doubt use ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ and woe betide you if you call a Scotsman or a Welshman ‘English’!! Even old George W. Bush fell foul when he asked; “What state is Wales in?” (To which most replied “Bloody awful!” with some humour!) Let me explain: Great Britain is the name of the island – the physical land-mass which encompasses England, Scotland and Wales (and outlying islands – the whole know as ‘The British Isles’) – the UK includes Northern Ireland too, which is not connected to the island of Great Britain. The full and proper name of the UK is “The United Kingdom of great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Now, if you want to talk the difference between the British Empire, Commonwealth and Overseas Territories, we could be here a while, so we’ll stick here for the moment. It may be true that Americans (and many other people) get this wrong a lot, but then even Napoleon referred to all British as “The English”…and he wonders why the Scots, Welsh and Irish didn’t like him too well!!
3) We all have bad teeth.
The teeth thing drives British people mad! There is nothing wrong with our teeth! American cartoons and pictures often show the British (who are always English) as having large buck-teeth or just plain bad teeth…it’s one of those stereotypes which just won’t die. The reason for this is the unpopular ‘Toothpaste Tax’ which the British imposed, for which the American counter was a caricature of all British people having bad teeth! It’s like Lemmings throwing themselves off of cliffs…they don’t! It was in a cartoon once, and now it is ‘fact’. Oddly, to cure the teeth debate, I will say that the World Health Organisation did an oral and dental hygiene study in mid-2014 and found that Britain had the best standard of teeth in the world…and I think the USA came in third.
4) Britain is a Socialist country.
Couldn’t be further from the truth! Britain has two main parties; Conservative and Labour. The Conservatives are right of centre and Labour is left of centre…socialist effectively. In the USA, you have Democrats and Republicans, but the Democrats are about where Britain’s Conservative party is, and the Republicans are further right than that. In the UK, we have had more Conservative governments than Labour ones, and some of our greatest Prime Ministers have been Conservatives, to include Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Our last Labour Government (Tony Blair won in 1997) won its place only by adopting Conservative values…effectively they became an ‘alternative Conservative party’ as ‘old Labour’ were unelectable based on their values.
5) It rains all the time.
In truth, it rains here about as much as anywhere else, although our last few summers have been very dry and we have had hosepipe bans enforced. There is always one day a year when Britain is the hottest country in the world and we bask in the sun! Again though, weather in Britain is changeable, so you could get a bit of anything at any time! There are some areas which get more rain than others too, for instance in Glasgow it rains two days in every three, whilst in Edinburgh fifty miles away, we barely see any rain! Also, whilst we don’t usually get extremes of hot and cold, what we do have is a nice balance in temperature, due to the Gulf Stream and the nice warm waters which surround us.
6) Britain never got over the American Revolution / War of independence.
I have been told this myself in the States, and it is very untrue. The average British person on the street could not tell you when it was, could not name you a battle (even the most clued up might mumble something about “Yorktown…?” as a vague guess and could not tell you a thing about it.) Naturally, in the USA the revolution has a massive cultural resonance, but here it seems so long and far away. By losing the American colonies, Britain went and colonised the rest of the world instead, drubbed the French in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, evened the score in the War of 1812 (which 95% of British people have never heard of) and these days seem too preoccupied by apologising to everyone we ever beat and conquered to notice that America was ever a part of it!
7) We all hate the French.
Ask most British people and they will laugh and nod. They don’t actually ‘hate’ the French at all and couldn’t tell you why, either! Britain and France have, of course, a thousand years of history of beating each other up, so it is kind of ingrained! Ask my Dad and he’ll tell you he hates the French because they hate us back, because half of them joined the Germans in WW2, because they wouldn’t give us their Navy after they had surrendered – which we had to go and sink, because they are ungrateful that we pitched in to save them in both World Wars and because of the famous one-liner “Non” when we put out hand up to join the Common Market…oh and they burn sheep too, every time they go on strike, which is weekly! That said, France is an enigma to us British. They are ‘ours’ to beat up on and nobody else’s, and as a Military Historian I take great pride in thinking that France which is (would you credit it??) the most successful military nation of all time (Won more battles and wars in numerical and percentile terms than anyone else) has been pummelled by Britain in almost every war we have ever had. From Canada to America, India and Bangladesh and everything in between (pretty much everywhere in Europe too) France has been beaten by the British. That said, when Britain and France did ally themselves, particularly in the Crimea and the 2nd Opium War, we found them to be excellent soldiers and good allies. They provided the ‘elan’ and we the backbone, and it was a great recipe for success. Still, the old feud still smoulders, and France not so long ago protested that French visitors on the Eurotunnel were first greeted by the sight of Waterloo station and asked us to change the name…of course we didn’t, so they named their arrival point ‘Fontenoy’ – a closely fought battle in 1745. Britain lost (most of the the army was Dutch anyway!) and it was probably the last time France ever beat us. I guarantee that 99% of British people have never heard of the battle of Fontenoy either!
8) We all know the Queen.
Sadly this is very untrue. I have seen her once though, standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on the 60th anniversary of VE Day. What our dear Queen must have thought to look down at her subjects (and my little group in particular) all blind drunk, waving flags and roaring “God save the Queen” at the tops of our voices, I don’t know! What I do know is that at the original celebration back in 1945 Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret slipped out of the palace and went into the crowd to join the celebrations with the people. For those who think she’s in any way stuffy, that’s the real Queen Elizabeth right there. Oh, and you should’ve heard the gasps over here when Obama touched her…you NEVER touch the Queen, much less clap her on the back! It’s pure bad form. She noticed but was too good to say anything about it. I’d have had him shot as an example….though I am given to understand that many Americans wouldn’t mind too much!
9) America saved their asses in World War II…and they know it.
Actually British people have a firmly entrenched belief that we won the war pretty much on our own….both of them! To be honest, so does America and France and Russia claims WWII exclusively too. A now out-of-print French school book taught about WWI that “France won the war when the British ran away, although the Americans came to clean up the bits at the end, but we didn’t need them.” It’s not so dissimilar with WW2. If anyone really won it, I guess it was Russia, although Britain gave them a vast amount of money, arms and technology to do it. In turn, America did the same for us. That said, there was a long period where it was Great Britain Vs Axis alone, and I’d say we did very well. By the time America came into WW2 we had sunk the Bismarck, Graf Spee and a good few other ships, won the battle of Beda Fomm and crushed the Italian army, then won First Alamein, El Am Halfa and 2nd Alamein too, had Rommel on the run, had cracked the Enigma code and had shot the Luftwaffe out of the sky…not a bad effort! All things considered though, it was a great team effort from everyone, British, American, Canadian, French, Indian, South African, Australian, New Zealanders…it took everyone to pull it off. However, you will never find a Brit who for a minute believes we needed help to hold our own.
10) The British love telling Americans what we invented.
I give…this is true. It’s time to laugh at the British for the one single most annoying thing which we do…and only to Americans too! Put a Brit and a Yank together and it will happen every time: “The list”. From Telephones to TV’s, Computers, the Internet, the Jet Engine, the Steam Turbine, the Steam Catapult, the Battleship, the Aircraft Carrier, Anaesthetics, Tarmac, the Atom Bomb….you’ll hear a great big vast list of British inventions. It is annoying, and we all do it. I do it. I don’t even know why. Perhaps we are establishing pedigree or just showing off? We don’t do this to the French or the Germans, we didn’t invent the car or the aeroplane (though we gave the plane the jet engine, as I say) but this is overlooked, and we will convince any American that without good old Britain they’d still be running around with feathers in their hair! I recall that wonderful old Bob Hoskins line from ‘The Long Good Friday’ to the American gangster – “I’m going into business with the Germans…yeah that’s right, the Krauts. Someone who gave the world a bit of culture…you know, something a bit more than a hot dog.” Sadly this is still the mentality of some people. So I apologise here for Britain, but we will continue to do it just as Americans will continue to draw cartoons of British people with bad teeth…these things just happen! – Oh and before I get abuse for naming the Atomic Bomb and having everyone yell “Manhattan Project!” at me, it is a little known fact that the Atom Bomb was a British Admiralty patent which was given to America during WW2 partly in payment for services rendered and partly because we were getting blitzed and had nowhere to build it and absolutely nowhere to test it. The deal was that Britain would get the technology back after the war…we didn’t, by the way!
So this is a funny look at some of our strange stereotypes and the reasons behind them. Foreigners are always annoying, and often never more so than when they look and sound like you! But I write this with humour, of course, and a little education thrown in. In fact, in defence of our American cousins, I will throw one other stereotype back the other way: The one where Americans can’t spell properly. ‘Color’ for ‘Colour’, ‘Gray’ for ‘Grey’ and the use of ‘Z’ instead of ‘S’ in everything. Well…this is our fault. Much as the British complain, this is all our doing. We took our crazy spelling to America and this was the generally-agreed upon way of spelling things until after America became independent when shortly after, Doctor Johnson wrote the English Dictionary and for the first time there was a standardised way of spelling every word. Of course, this came late to America and they opted to stay with what they had. So there…it isn’t ‘American English’ so much as ‘Pre-dictionary British English’…we British started it, so we should complain less!!
In truth, there is a great love affair between Great Britain and the USA. We are allies and cousins. America is, of course, where Britain was 150 years ago, so to us we have seen it all before and been it ourselves. We look with just a little envy at what was our place in the world before two world wars skinted us to fifth-richest country in the world (Thanks Germany) and most of that money went across the Atlantic…somewhere there is a sore point, I suppose, hence we yarn on about inventions and wars and other such things. That said, Britain is becoming more Americanised nowadays…and America is becoming more British too. I hear New York described as being ‘virtually British’ by Americans quite often. So we seem to be pulling together however we like it.
One final thing for us Brits to remember is that old saying; “Blood is thicker than water” – we use it to mean “Family is closer than friends” here, but that isn’t the true meaning. For the true meaning we have to give credit to an American – Captain Josiah Tattnall who broke American neutrality during the First Opium War by opening his guns on the Chinese forts which were pounding one of our grounded ships. In so doing, he violated American neutrality, but stated that he could not sit by and watch the British get pounded. Our shared roots are longer and wider than the Ocean which divides us and hence we should all remember that, whatever our differences, blood should always be thicker than water.