Lexiculture: expat

Michelle Layton

Wayne State University

Cite as: Layton, Michelle. 2016. Expat. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 1. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/expat.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Many everyday social interactions, such as meeting a new person, create first impressions and categorization of people based on a number of readily-apparent factors. These initial expectations about people are highly influenced, if not created, by cultural beliefs and norms. Although the labels that people give one another derive from a set of opinions or perceptions of the labeler, these categories are essentially formed by widely shared cultural beliefs and values within a society. Travelers are often the recipients of the most intense labeling because they are seen as outsiders or ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ This way of thinking usually leads to harsh, unfair, or prejudiced attitudes toward people who were not born in the country where they reside.

This paper will focus specifically on the word ‘expat,’ how it came to be, and its contextual usage in relation to the words ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant;’ essentially, who is considered an expat and why? What cultural factors and labels, such as the desire to distinguish between types of travelers and visitors, caused the word ‘expat’ to emerge in a British context with different connotations than ‘expatriate’ or ‘immigrant?’ The primary sources used for this research are Pauline Leonard’s book, Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations: Working Whiteness, focusing on the racial and social implications of the word ‘expatriate’ or ‘expat;’ a very informative article, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, “It’s not what it was: British Migrants in Postcolonial Hong Kong,” written by professor of sociology in London, Caroline Knowles, who addresses British citizens’ experiences living abroad and specifically discusses the usage of the word ‘expat;’ and finally, University of Sheffield lecturer, Peter Matanle’s article, “Expatriate Games,” published by The Guardian news website. In addition to these sources, several dictionaries will be used to examine dissimilarities in definitions of ‘expat,’ ‘expatriate,’ and ‘immigrant.’ The contextual usage in various blog posts will also be analyzed, as the aim is not only to focus on official sources, but how the words are actually used in everyday life and viewed by ordinary people.

To study the usage and meanings of the word ‘expat,’ one must first dissect the word that it is shortened from—‘expatriate.’ The word ‘expatriate’ comes from the Latin words ‘ex’ meaning out, and ‘patria’ meaning one’s native country; therefore the simplest and most common definition of this word used today is a person living outside their native country (Expatriate). However, beginning in 1787 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was used as a verb in the sense that one could be expatriated, or exiled, from their country (Expatriate, v). This word has been applied to people living outside of their home country for the last couple hundred years and has consistently been used much more widely than ‘expat’ (as the graph below demonstrates), suggesting it can be used to refer to a much broader category of travelers or be used in more contexts.

2-1-1Google Ngram of the usage of ‘expatriate’ and ‘expat’ in books from 1800-2000

Expatriate was shortened, and the word ‘expat’ emerged as a largely British word in the 1960s with different connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary has two examples of the word beginning to be used, in 1962 and 1968, and both are used in a British context (Expat, n).

However, Grammarphobia states that the May 21st, 1961 issue of the New York Times uses the word in quotations, suggesting it was not widely known at this time and may have been the first published use of the word (O’Connor). The origins of the word lie in mid-20th century British beliefs and popularity for wealthy or well-known British people to temporarily live in a different country. At this time it was seen as a status symbol for authors, academics, and aristocrats to be well-traveled; and that holds true today as six million British people, or a tenth of the population, are not currently living in the UK (Knowles). Peter Matanle, a Senior Lecturer and Director of Research at the University of Sheffield, states that in the mid-1900s “being an expat amounted to a movement” in the UK (Matanle). It has become widely used more recently (as the chart below conveys) possibly to describe a larger category of people, but likely due to the effect of globalization and technology on mobility and the increased expectation for professionals to travel away from their country to work for a short time (Definition of “expat”). In the United States the word seems to be used more often to describe people traveling for business, while in the U.K, it is often used to describe wealthy vacationers (as they often spend weeks at summer homes abroad). However, the focus of this paper will mainly address the more common British uses of the word ‘expat’.

2-1-2Google Ngram of the usage of the word ‘expat’ in books from 1960-2000

It is also necessary to examine the word ‘immigrant’ in juxtaposition to ‘expat’. ‘Immigrant’ has been around since the 1700s and is most commonly defined as a person who goes to another country to live (Immigrant). Although this word has a more permanent implication than the most common uses of the word ‘expat,’ these terms are actually quite similar but are used in very different contexts. Although some bloggers who love to travel have stated that the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘expat’ are interchangeable, such as one blogger who claimed “an expat is also an immigrant of course” (Are You an Expat), it seems to be a much more widely held belief that these words are used to describe different groups of people and in very different situations, which will now be discussed in detail (Deo).

The amount of time one can live in a foreign country and still be called an expat is not strictly defined, as supported by the scholarly research of a professor at the University of London who claims that “temporariness involves a wide range of temporalities from a year, to what eventually accumulates to a lifetime of deferred decisions to move-on” (Knowles). This is also demonstrated in a blog post that got a lot of supporting comments, “The time you live abroad does not matter either; you are labelled as an expat whether it’s for a year to sixty years” (“Expatriate” ExpatWoman). The amount of time one intends on spending in a country often distinguishes the word ‘expat’ from the word ‘immigrant’ as a person who eventually plans on returning to their native country at some point. However, if one moves past the official definitions found in scholarly dictionaries and studies how the words are used in everyday language, it is evident that there are larger and more important factors in labeling someone as an ‘immigrant’ or ‘expat’ beyond their length of stay.

When the word ‘expat’ is used to describe someone, many people might instantly have a distinct mental picture of who that ‘expat’ might be (see pictures below). In the UK, this word is most often used to describe a high-class, professional British person who is going to a different country to share their expertise and work, or sometimes just to get out of paying higher taxes. Although this word can be used to refer to Americans or anybody born in a ‘Western’ country, there was not a single American that I mentioned the word ‘expat’ to who knew of the word or did not ask me to repeat it several times and then define it. This word is almost only used by British people referring to themselves or other ‘expats’; and many have claimed this word is elitist because it was produced out of the necessity to distinguish oneself from immigrants (Matanle).



These pictures are the first results of a Google search of ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’

The question of whether one would be considered an expat or immigrant is very much based on class, race, and the country one is going to and coming from. According to Peter Matanle, the word ‘expat’  “is too easily used as a cultural marker to distinguish people from one another, making it easy for some Britons to feel both superior to and separated from the local people in their host cultures” (Matanle). According to Pauline Leonard, professor of sociology at the University of Southampton, a person usually has to possess three qualities in order to be labeled an ‘expat’: they must be privileged; they must come from ‘the West’; and they usually must be white (Leonard). These terms are often used to include or exclude certain people or groups who do not fulfill these requirements. It can be seen from the above photos, which were some of the most common types of pictures on Google for ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant,’ that these words are used to distinguish between people of different social classes, ethnicities, and cultures.

First, an expat must be privileged so this immediately excludes people who come from countries with few opportunities. Moreover, people who go to another country to try and better their chances for getting a reasonably-paying job or having a higher quality of life are also automatically excluded from ‘expat’ status. Therefore, one is labeled an immigrant instead of an expat if they are leaving a poor country and going to a more privileged one.  Since the ‘Western’ countries are often seen as the most privileged and ‘sophisticated’, a person must be traveling from a ‘Western’ country to either another ‘Western’ country or to a less privileged country in order to be called an ‘expat’ (Leonard). This idea will be discussed in more detail shortly.

The claim that a person usually has to be white to be considered an ‘expat’ can be seen in the above photos, or any photos that come up with a simple search of the word. In fact, many people do not like to use this word because they are aware of and sensitive to the class- and race- based implications. One blogger writes, “Some would reserve the word ‘expat’ for mid-20th century travelers,” as they were all elite white Britons during the period when it first became very fashionable to be well-travelled and cultured (Mark). Knowles discusses ‘postcolonial whiteness’ in her article, asserting that white people are “invisible in terms of ethnicity” and that the usefulness of ‘whiteness’ in suppression and superiority over groups lies in its ambiguity as it “occupies a central but undeclared and unmarked position” (Knowles, 8). Therefore, it is argued that ‘whiteness’ in postcolonial terms is just a concept, not a real thing or referring to a specific ethnicity, however it can still be seen in the context of who is considered an ‘expat’ or not.

A British website that encourages its users to come up with the funniest possible definitions for words, Uncyclopedia, actually presents some useful information on how the words ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ are viewed and used, even if it is used in a joking context and meant to be exaggerated. In discussing the ‘expat’ vs ‘immigrant’ label, the article states that the difference in ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant is that “an Expat is cool and rich whereas an immigrant is some poor person moving to a rich country to steal low paying jobs from honest folks” (Expatriate Uncyclopedia). The surprising thing is how many people actually embrace this view. Immigrants are looked down upon and thought to be a problem because they supposedly take jobs from native-born, hard-working people. However, when an expat is sent to another country to work there by their corporation, it is apparent that the company probably did not try to find a native-born person to take the job before looking elsewhere for someone to bring in. In this way, expats also take possible jobs from people who live in these countries, but are not generally viewed with this negative connotation.

It is clear that the word ‘immigrant’ comes with negative implications, and the word ‘expat’ comes with supposedly positive ones. It is evident from the debates over immigration policy that many people from ‘Western’ countries view immigrants as unhelpful, unskilled, and a burden. However, ‘expats’ around the world are viewed as having “skills that contribute to receiving countries and place no burden on host countries” (Knowles). Therefore, it can be concluded that a common belief is that immigrants take jobs and expats create them, or only take jobs that nobody else is skilled enough to do. Also, others traveling to the ‘West’ to live are seen as a problem, whereas ‘Western’ people traveling to other countries are seen as charitable or helpful to that country. This belief is based on factors such as socioeconomic and political conditions of one’s home country versus the country one is moving to (Knowles).

Many bloggers insist that people born in the ‘West’ feel as if their country should be reserved only for native-born people. Some bloggers rightly assert that there is hypocrisy in the idea that immigrants are unwanted in the ‘West’ but many ‘Westerners’ are immigrants themselves in other countries. One blogger, having a conversation with a British ‘expat,’ claims this man “told me how he hated immigrants and wished they would all bugger off to where they came from,” even though this man was on a cruise ship coming back from living in the Caribbean. This blogger, who seems to have a lot of contact with Britons, also states that many people hate being called immigrants because they contribute to their new country and are not “job-seeking flotsam” as he claims many expats believe (Deo). While many non-expats criticize the usage of the word, one blogger states that “people in the expat community, however, seem to use the word as a badge of honor rather than seeing the negative impression of it” (Caitlin). These statements are very illuminating as they demonstrate how one person, if not many, view immigrants, or anyone else for that matter, in relation to themselves as expats.

There is one more factor that is necessary to discuss in the labeling of an ‘expat’ or ‘immigrant’—assimilation into the new culture. Since ‘expats’ usually do not plan on staying long and often have a superior attitude, many do not bother learning the language or anything about their host country; however, immigrants are expected to learn the new language and conform to the new social customs. These processes of “transmission and accumulation are uneven” (Knowles). Emily Prucha, a blogger who focuses on bilingual and multicultural families living abroad, writes that ‘expats’ network and make friends in a very different way than immigrants or even common tourists. She also claims that there are “cohesive communities” of expats who keep to themselves, only visit ‘expat’ bars, and only socialize with other ‘expats’ (Prucha). There are also various websites for expats to come together to share their feelings and make friends online so they do not have to put  as much effort into getting to know people from the new country. Although immigrants might live in a community with people who share their ethnicity as expats often do, there are not accessible and far-reaching resources for them to discuss their experiences or make friends as there are for expats.

The more recent usage of the word ‘expat’ in British contexts demonstrates many cultural values and beliefs. The labeling of a person as an ‘expat’ or an ‘immigrant’ comes with positive and negative implications, as cultural views and stereotypes are ingrained in this labeling. Therefore, the words are used in a way to purposefully include or exclude groups of people, and distinguish someone as being high or low class, and a problem or an asset. So, are you an expat? There seems to be a choice, at least for some people such as wealthy ‘Westerners,’ to call themselves expats or not, but many people, such as immigrants, are stuck with the labels they are given.


“Are You an Expat or an Immigrant and Does It Really Matter?” Shelter Offshore. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.shelteroffshore.com/index.php/living/more/expat-or-immigrant-does-it-matter-11011&gt;.

Caitlin. “Thoughts on the Word “Expat”” A Rant A Rave and a Little Bit of Everyday Life. N.p., 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://ktayd13.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/wordexpat/&gt;.

“Definition of “expat”” Collins Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/expat&gt;

Deo, Ritwik. “The British Abroad: Expats, Not Immigrants.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 9 July 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/ british-abroad-expats-immigrants-indians>.

Prucha, Emily. “”Expat” – a Dirty Word.” Prague Monitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://praguemonitor.com/2010/09/17/expat-%E2%80%93-dirty-word&gt;.

“Expat.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. 1 Nov. 2014. < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/expat&gt;.

“Expat, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 November 2014. <http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/66438?redirectedFrom=expat&&gt;

“”Expatriate”” Expat Woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.expatwoman.com/global/features_define_expatriate_13846.aspx&gt;.

“Expatriate.” Oxford Dictionaries. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/expatriate&gt;.

“Expatriate.” Uncyclopedia. N.p., 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Expatriate&gt;.

“Expatriate, v.” Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/66445?rskey=Bb91Qy&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid&gt;.

Google Ngram Viewer. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

“Immigrant.” Merriam-Webster. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/immigrant&gt;.

Knowles, Caroline. “‘It’s Not What It Was’: British Migrants in Postcolonial Hong Kong.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2007): n. pag. Oct. 2007. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/its-not-what-it-was.pdf&gt;.

Leonard, Pauline. Expatriate Identities in Postcolonial Organizations Working Whiteness. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Matanle, Peter. “Expatriate Games.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 27 Oct. <http://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2011/apr/11/mind-your-language-expat-brits&gt;.

Mark. “Who Is an Expat?” TheNextRoad. N.p., 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <http://www.thenextroad.com/expat/&gt;.

O’Connor, Patricia, and Stewart Kellerman. “Is “expat” Domesticated?”Grammarphobia. N.p., Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2014/03/expat.html&gt;.


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