Lexiculture: cafeteria

Deanna English

Wayne State University

Cite as: English, Deanna. 2016. Cafeteria. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 4. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/cafeteria.pdf

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

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Imagine you are planning a first date with the person you are interested in and are given three dining options to choose from: a restaurant, an old fashioned home-cooked dinner, or, a cafeteria. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet that a date to the cafeteria would be your absolute last resort. Not because a cafeteria is an inadequate place to eat, but because of the negative connotations associated with the word. The first association that comes to mind when I hear cafeteria is high school. I think of the 35-40 minutes of “free-time” in-between classes signifying that the school day is almost over, but more importantly, I also think of waiting in excessively long lines for subpar food. In relation to this, the word cafeteria has been reduced to becoming a term that is continuously swept under the rug. Usually found in educational systems, hospitals, major corporations, and even prisons, these institutions sometimes replace cafeteria with other phrases such as dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, or even food court; all words that are similar in meaning, but seem to sound “better” than simply calling the area a cafeteria. So my question is why? Why does this word, cafeteria, not only have a negative connotation, but also an unpleasant stereotype that goes along with it?

History and Etymology

The term cafeteria is an Americanized version of the Spanish word cafetería, meaning coffee-house or coffee store. First appearing in the Spanish language during the latter 1800’s, cafetería was a combination of the word café, meaning “coffee,” and the ending –tería, which translates as “a place where something is done”[1]. In this context the word, at that time, was known as a gathering place for patrons to sit and discuss business or personal matters over a beverage, such as coffee. However in 1923, the ending -tería took a shift in meaning and came to be understood as “help-yourself,” changing the overall meaning of the word to be known as it is today — a “self-service restaurant.” The actual context in which the U.S. adopted the word from Spanish in 1900 is unknown and has yet to be fully researched. However, in the Journal American Speech, Phillips Barry gives a brief overview of his notes on the history and derivation of cafeteria.

In summary, he discusses how the word has had a long history; beginning with the Greek word καφενείο, or “coffee-house,” it migrated into Turkish, near East, and Arabic contexts between the 1600-1800’s, before eventually reaching Spanish context in the mid to late 1800’s, and then finally being adopted by American English in 1900. Discussing the term’s uses and transformation over time, he adds that, unlike how the word is used today, the phrase “coffee shop” or “coffee house” referred to a “poor man’s club,” where coffee was actually used as a “stimulating drug.” This use of the word was seen as early as the 1600’s in Turkey, and eventually used in this same context in Mexico. Moving forward, Barry discusses the history surrounding the Spanish word cafetería. Dating back to 1862, the word appears in Cuban-Spanish as, cafetería la tienda en que se vende café per menor: “the shop where coffee is sold at retail.” Since the word was not picked up or used by Americans until the early 1900’s, there is no evidence to show its use outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico during the mid-1800’s, however, Barry explains the formulation of the Spanish term cafetería as “an analogy of the cuban-spanish bisuteria, or jewelry store, which, coincidentally, was a loan word from the French word bijouterie. With an intricate and complicated history, Barry closes his piece with the notion that the “story” behind cafeteria and its association with self-service is not complete, leaving anticipation for further research to be done in the future[2].

Even though the context in which cafeteria was adopted by American English is not known, we can still hypothesize until more work is done to find out. If we look at Spanish and American foreign relations during this time period of the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s, there are a few key events during which Americans may have discovered cafetería. For example, following the Mexican-American war in the 1860’s, the U.S. organized filibusters to go on armed expeditions to Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, in attempt to acquire territorial gains. Also, in the latter 1890’s, the Spanish-American war broke out as a result of American intervention on Cuba’s War of independence. With the signing of The Treaty of Paris in 1898, America was granted infinite control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands, and temporary control of Cuba from Spain[3]. With so much interaction between American English and Spanish speaking people in such a short time period, it is likely that cafeteria was borrowed and Americanized from cafetería in one of these contexts. However this is only an assumption and, similar to Barry’s point, there is not enough research to prove so. This leads to my own personal research of cafeteria and, more specifically, how the word has shaped this idea of self-service, and how the negative connotation became associated with it. But before we begin, we must ask the question: what exactly is so bad about a self-service restaurant? Looking at this concept neutrally, it is an efficient and productive method to serving food for large quantities of people, and should be praised, not bashed. I mean, we all like to eat, and we need food to survive. So why are cafeterias acquiring such a terrible representation?


Taking a closer look at how media and the entertainment industry has transformed the way food, in itself, has been viewed over the last several decades, it can be easy to spot where cafeterias have been hindered with this terrible rep. From popular children’s television shows and movies like Hey Arnold[4] and Mean Girls[5] to documentaries such as Cafeteria Man, and Lunch Hour, the entertainment industry highlights how kids are being served daily doses of mystery meat and nutrition-less garbage in cafeteria settings.







For example, the documentary Lunch Hour highlights how Americas National School Lunch Program essentially privatized the cafeteria system by establishing “factory farms,” a conventionalized system which makes it possible for schools across the nation to serve and feed roughly 17 million school children on as little as 90 cents per meal. By serving meals high in sugar, fats, dairy, and a side of “mystery meat,” this documentary shares how the worlds future generations are succumbed to eating lunch time meals that fail to administer any nutritional value. But these examples are just a taste of how our media culture visualizes, depicts, and showcases cafeterias. To show this negative image from the music industry’s standpoint, even “Weird Al” Yankovic expresses his opinion on the cafeteria in his two-version song “School Cafeteria.” In both versions he writes:

You know a school cafeteria believes in mass production

They buy those lousy soy beans by the keg

I don’t like to complain, but in a school cafeteria

You can get a taco and get bubonic plague

Based off of these few examples alone, the meals being served in cafeterias nationwide are definitely not going unnoticed; and just about everyone seems to have a negative comment about them. In fact, in addition to the documentaries that have profited off of bashing cafeterias and the TV shows or songs that add to the negative image, the news media further terrorizes the word cafeteria in its entirety.

Connecticut School Agrees to Changes After Students Boycott Cafeteria Food, Texas A&M Galveston Students Take Cafeteria Lunch Complaints to Social Media, Your lunchbox may be as unhealthy as the cafeteria[6] A quick search of cafeteria in the ‘News’ section of Google will bring up pages and pages of articles and news stories similar to these ones. The best part? These articles just mentioned were not written five years ago, a year ago, or even a month ago. Rather, they were published within the past 24 hours of the time of my search. In my opinion, the media’s insistence on consistently targeting the cafeteria and highlighting its not-so-great qualities seems useless after a certain point[7]. Not to mention that, as this problem of poor quality cafeteria food has seemingly been going on for decades, you would think that a better solution would have been addressed, or the media would eventually find something else to discuss.


What is interesting about the shows, documentaries, and news articles previously mentioned, however, is that they all seem to centralize their attention on one aspect of what the cafeteria’s central purpose is: food. Meaning, what all of these different sources have in common is that they all seem to solely bash cafeteria food; more specifically, its variety and quality. By drawing back to the initial Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word, a cafeteria is supposed to represent a self-service restaurant; it does not promise a selection of the finest and most-nutritious meals, but rather a way for the customer to pick and choose as they please in an efficient and satisfying manner. The underlying issue here is that the cafeteria as a whole is not giving itself a bad representation, instead, it’s the individual parts that make up the whole; such as the food, employees, etc. However, before we move on, since we have looked at what the media and popular culture think of the word, let’s quickly look at what the average American thinks.

To add to this negative stigma surrounding the word, a quick hop over to Urban Dictionary will give further insight into what America really think about cafeteria. The site defines the word in this manner:


Judging that since this entry is from 2006[8], it can most likely be implied that the negatively viewed articles I highlighted about cafeterias that have been written during 2014 would be very similar to what was written about cafeterias almost a decade ago; and a quick search in Google will show that it is exactly the case. As the top result is an article from the NY Times entitled A Cafeteria Food Fight Over Health[9], it does not take much to show how little things have changed over the past decade in a media sense. Back to what modern Americans think of cafeteria, it is interesting to see how the term is automatically associated with schools or universities. Rarely is the word being represented negatively while it is in connection with a hospital or company — two other institutions who are not strangers to implementing a cafeteria style eating plan for its patrons. For example, referring back to the ‘News’ section of Google, searching the phrase “hospital cafeteria” will showcase articles such as, Right place, right time: Thompson staff members save life in cafeteria (Henriette Post, Nov 10, 2014) and, Fairview Hospitals Rolling Out New, Healthier Food Menu (CBS Local, Nov 3, 2014). Whether it is because hospitals and companies need to maintain a positive reputation, or the fact that it is easier to point a finger at what could be behind child obesity, the reasoning behind the distinctively different representations of hospital and company cafeterias versus school cafeterias in our society remains to be unknown. Drawing on all examples mentioned, it is clear that the food being served in school cafeterias seems to be the contender to the negative representation of cafeteria. However, even in this context, the use of the term cafeteria, as I have come to find out, does not always have to be associated with food.

Alternative Contextual Uses

Referring back to the cafeteria entry on Urban Dictionary, on the bottom right-hand side of the page, a list of suggested words and phrases based off of my search of “cafeteria” were shown — which definitely caught my attention. Ranging from “cafeteria lady,” “cafeteria nazi,” and “cafeteria syndrome,” these entries targeted stereotypical aspects of the school cafeteria such as the female cafeteria “lunch ladies,” and the “craziness” experienced when you frequent the cafeteria too much. Let’s not forget about my personal favorite, “cafeterrhea,” which was defined as: “Diarrhea induced by eating food from a cafeteria, particularly school or work cafeterias.” Similar to the prior examples by the media, these entries on Urban Dictionary aggregate the same sense of negative stigma towards cafeteria by either targeting its food or employees[10].


However, if you take a closer look, the meanings of some “cafeteria” related entries such as “cafeteria religion,” “cafeteria speed date,” and “cafeterian” are distinctly different from the ones just mentioned. Meaning, instead of defining the cafeteria as being a one-way ticket to encountering mean female workers, disgusting food, and a trip to the toilet, rather, these phrases center around the behavioral aspect of picking and choosing, or refer to the act of “self-selection.” For example, take the phrase “Cafeteria Religion” which is defined as, “Selecting parts from a religion instead of accepting it as a whole with all its doctrines and customs”. We could even take this a step further and look at “cafeteria Catholicism;” which is, “[a] derogatory term referring to religious individuals who follow the Catholic faith and pick and choose which doctrines of the Church they wish to follow and which ones they don’t.” Are these uses of the word cafeteria referring to a “self-service restaurant?” Certainly not, but this new use of the term cafeteria as an adjective instead of a noun is definitely worth looking at. After conducting a little more research, I found that there are several other ‘cafeteria concepts’ that apply the notion of self-service to things other than the food industry: the cafeteria principle, cafeteria agile, and cafeteria insurance plans are just to name a few. What these concepts have in common is their dependence on selection, efficiency, and variety; words that correspond coincidentally with the original definition of the word cafeteria.

Taking the first example, the cafeteria principle, I can explain how the use of “self-service” or “selection” comes into play. Coined by the American linguist J.L. Dillard[11], the term cafeteria principle refers to the concept of language mixing, which is the creation of a new language by “selecting” certain features from various other languages. This term can also be applied to the word creole or the term creole language, as both are similar in meaning. As we can see in this context, cafeteria is being utilized for its meaning of selection. And, in keeping with the negative connotation of the word cafeteria, the cafeteria principle, or creole languages, are generally seen as “degenerate” and mainly associated with people of the lower class. In a different context, the cafeteria principle can also be used in a business setting. For example, “cafeteria insurance policy” refers to a type of plan where customers can select certain benefits and policies that best fit their needs. Going off of this idea on how cafeteria is being used in different contexts, we can also talk about how the word cafeteria, in itself, has inspired the creation of other words. Take the word pizzeria for example. Borrowed from Italy, the term pizzeria refers to a pizza restaurant where customers can “self-select” what they want. As the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, a pizzeria is a combination of the word pizza and ending in –eria, “as in cafeteria.” Another example of a word that shares a –eria ending is groceteria. Commonly known as a grocery store or grocery, the word was first used in the mid-15th century, hundreds of years prior to the first appearance of cafeteria. The OED explains how “self-service groceries were a novelty in 1913 when a Montana, U.S., firm copyrighted the word groceteria (with the ending from cafeteria used in an un-etymological sense) to name them […] the term existed through the 1920s.” However, the usage of the word cafeteria can be defined as more than the Oxford English Dictionary’s single definition as a “self-service restaurant,” but rather, it can also be defined as a concept or modifier that stresses the sense of “self-service” or “selection” in other contexts outside of just food.


Dining hall, buffet, lunchroom, automat, smorgasbord, canteen; whatever you want to call it, you are probably referring to the cafeteria. For a word that has been utilized in American English for a little over a century, it has a historical background, connotation, and underlying meaning that is more significant and complicated than I had originally anticipated. As I began my research looking at how cafeteria is negatively represented by our culture, I found numerous examples that fit the criteria I was searching for, however, I never truly found a distinct answer as to my question of why. There are numerous possibilities, such as the outcomes that stem from regularly eating food that is coherently “bad” for you, or even the fact that school cafeteria food has, in a sense, become an industry in itself; but these still remain to be hypotheses or assumptions, with a lot more research to be done by people who are far more experienced on comparing media and food culture than I am. Despite this, I did manage to find some relevant and useful information pertaining to how cafeteria is used in other contexts, an idea that I had never thought of or considered before. Showing the versatility of the word and how its use of the meaning “self-service” can be applied to linguistics and business in the sense that an entire language or dialect can be formed by selecting certain words from other languages, or a business can create a “cafeteria policy” to adhere to the wide “selection” of different needs and desires of its customers, I began to understand how cafeteria is more than just a noun, but an adjective as well; creating a cafeteria of knowledge about the word, cafeteria.


A Bibliophile. “Cafeteria.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 14 July 2006. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cafeteria>

Barry, Phillips. “Cafeteria.” American Speech 3.1 (1927): 35-37. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/451402?seq=3>

Brason, Justine. “Annoying Things Your Hear From Cafeteria Catholics.” The Catholic Warrior. N.p., 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://catholicworrier.blogspot.com/2014/02/10-annoying-things-your-hear-from.html>.

Harper, Douglas. “Cafeteria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.     <http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=cafeteria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Grocery.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=grocery&allowed_in_frame=0>

Harper, Douglas. “Pizzeria.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.     <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pizzeria&allowed_in_frame=0>

Mel. “Cafeteria Catholicism.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 30 Nov. 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.          <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeteria%20Catholicism>

Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2014

Tobias, Michael C. “School Lunch Movie Says Unhealthy Cafeteria Fare Is Everyone’s      Problem.” Forbes. N.p., 26 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/dadehayes/2014/03/12/school-lunch-movie-says-unhealthy-cafeteria-fare-is-everyones-problem/

Unknown. “Cafeteria.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria>

Unknown. “Cafeteria Plan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cafeteria_plan>

Unknown. “Creole Language.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_language#Social_and_political_status>

Unknown. “Milestones: 1830-1860.” U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. Bureau of   Public Affairs, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/territorial-expansion>

Yankovic, Weird Al. “”School Cafeteria – Version 1″ Lyrics.” AZ Lyrics. MusixMatch, n.d. Web.   11 Nov. 2014. < http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/weirdalyankovic/schoolcafeteriaversion1.html>

0ps. “Cafeterrhea.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cafeterrhea>.


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Data in reference to Cafeteria by Phillips Barry

[3] U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian

[4] Image: lunch lady from Hey Arnold

[5] Image: Quotation and still from Mean Girls

[6] All news headlines from Google; within 24 hours of November 11, 2014

[7] Image: Screenshot of popular Google searches of phrase, “why is cafeteria”…

[8] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[9] Google News, 2006

[10] Text and image: Urban Dictionary entry for Cafeteria

[11] Wikipedia – Creole language


Lexiculture: gnarly

Mallory Moore

Wayne State University

Cite as: Moore, Mallory. 2016. Gnarly. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 3. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/gnarly.pdf

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

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Gnarly is a word that can show us a lot about the differences in society. By studying the word gnarly, we can clearly see how much of an effect different cultures have on the meanings of words. The original form of the word gnarly is an adjective meaning mangled and twisted, but it evolved to be a exclamation meaning awesome and cool. The real mystery is, how can one culture have such a major impact on the meaning of a word that is used by an entire nation of people?The word “gnarly” originated from the mispronunciation of the word “knurl”, which means twisted, deformed, rugged, and timeworn (alphaDictionary).  The word was eventually taken over by the Californian surfer culture in the 1970s and 1980s to describe intense and rough waves. Given the fact that surfers intentionally seek out these specific types of waves, the term eventually became synonymous with words like “awesome” and “incredible”.

This new definition was a very drastic change from the word’s original meaning. According to the website Urban Dictionary, “Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, it’s balls out danger, & or perfection, & or skill or all of that combined”(Urban Dictionary). The original meaning of the word was not found on Urban Dictionary. This shows how prominent the words used by the surfer culture are to the other general members or society. According to the Surflibrary.com page, Surfin’ USA, “Among surfers (with whom the word is most commonly identified), “gnarly” may have first been used at a California surf spot where Torrey pine or Monterey cyprus trees grew (Picture to the left). Their gnarled roots and branches may have inspired comparisons with the waves. In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to be used to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions.”(Nguyen). It is very intriguing to find out just how this drastic change occurred. How could a negative, descriptive word, meaning twisted and disgusting, change so quickly to a slang word meaning awesome and intense from such a small group’s decision to use a word differently?


Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

The base word for gnarly, knurl, in its noun form, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A small projection, protuberance, or excrescence; a knot, knob, boss, nodule, etc.; a small bead or ridge, especially one of a series worked upon a metal surface for ornamentation or other purpose.” (OED). When looking at this definition, it is not a far reach to the original definition of gnarly. In its verb form its definition is “To make knurls, beadings, or ridges (on the edge of a coin, a screw-head, etc.); to mill, to crenate.”(OED). When looking at the verb form of the word, it is easier to see both definitions of the word gnarly and how they relate to each other.  The verb form of this word appeared over 250 years after the noun appeared.


As shown in the chart above, the words “gnarl” and “knurl,” were used almost interchangeably for most of the years of their popularity. Between 1940 and 1960, the popularity of their use in American English began to plummet. After these uses declined, they remained pretty consistent until 1980, when the meaning of the word “gnarly” changed. At this point in time, there was a drastic spike in its use in American society. When the spike occurred, the use of the related words further decreased, and they have remained at a very low rates of use ever since.

The original form of the word “gnarly” was just used for descriptions. The use of the word in this form, can be seen through this excerpt from the article “Madame Brownie’s Mourning” by Mrs. Celestia Rice Colby in the journal, The Little Pilgrim. Here, it is clear that the word gnarly is meant to help the reader visualize the “boughs” in which they are describing. Other than the word “gnarly”, descriptive words in the sentence are old, torn, and discolored (Colby 80). Even if the reader did not know what the word “gnarly” meant, it is clear from the context that this is a negative term.


Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

During the 1980s, the new definition was still unknown to most of society outside of the surfer culture. This can be shown by the excerpt below from the book Directions 1983 by Phyllis Rosenzweig. It shows the word “gnarly” being used to describe the hand position of Saint Louis of France in a work of art. The word “gnarly,” is written in quotes and given a definition in the book, which is that it means “wow, cherry, bitchin’, for sure, all that surfer, valley-girl type lingo” (Rosenzweig 47). The fact that in this book, the word “gnarly” is put in quotes is evidence that this definition of the word is not yet widely known and it was still necessary to provide the definition or else people would not understand.


Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

When the term was adopted by the Californian Surfer culture after 1980, the use of the phrase “totally gnarly” came into use and became very popular as show by the Google Ngram Viewer chart below. Before 1980, this phrase did not exist. After the phrase was associated with the surfer culture, it’s popularity was drastically increased when words like “awesome, righteous, totally, and gnarly” were included in movies like “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” which were set in California and were released in the early 80s. One of the tag lines for the movie was “It’s Awesome! Totally Awesome!” (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Transcript). The actors who portrayed characters acting as stereotypical “surfer dudes”. The popularity of these movies in the early 1980s and 1990s had a major impact on the conversation style of many teenagers growing up during this period. Hearing these phrases in movies, brought them to the attention of the American public, and teenagers around the nation soon picked up the surfer language.


When the word “gnarly” became popular around the nation, it was picked up and evolved further by many other cultural groups. The word was picked up by the skateboarding and snowboarding subcultures and often shortened to Gnar. An example of the word “gnarly” being used in these subcultures, would sound like “It’s pretty gnarly out, Bro. It’s double overhead today!” (Stone). This form of the word is used in the same was as the surfer culture in phrases like “shredding the gnar” (Stone).  According to Will Mari, in his opinion column, gnar is “used by snowboarders and skiers to refer to snow, especially to the fabled fluff that is the ‘gnar gnar’.”(Mari). Mari goes on to describe the snow as being “the deepest of the deep. The driest of the dry. The powest of the pow pow” (i.e. powder): in other words, the best possible snow to ski, sled, and ride on.”(Mari). This form of the word has strong similarities to the word “gnarly,” the only difference is they are used by different cultural groups. Even though it may not be obvious to someone who is not involved in surfing, skateboarding, or snowboarding, the members of each group have their own individual linguistic differences.

In recent years, the popularity of the word “gnarly” has remained relatively steady, with a slight decline in its use. When the term is used in television shows, it is used in a comedic fashion, by a person who speaks in the surfer accent, and is only ever talking about surfing. This can be seen in television shows such as Spongebob Squarepants. The excerpt below, from an episode of SpongeBob called “SpongeBob Square pants vs. The Big One” shows the word gnarly as a way of mocking the surfer culture, as opposed to just using the word. You can also see the mocking qualities by the name and description of the surfer in this passage. The name “Jack Kahuna Laguna” is clearly meant to make fun of the language of the surfer culture. Another example showing how the surfer culture is portrayed in today’s society, through the character portrayal of “Kyle the Surfer Dude” is in the television show “The Amanda Show”. This character is meant to sound uneducated, which gave the viewers of the show a negative concept of the members of the surfer culture and their distinct linguistic aspects. This negative portrayal, in turn, gives the terms they use, like gnarly, negative aspects as well. The word “gnarly” in the form of surfer speak, is still in use today, but has acquired a negative connotation over the years.

SpongeBob: It’s JKL! Hail O great swami of the Gnarly Pounders! We seek audience with thee.

Patrick: Plus, we wanna talk to you.

SpongeBob: Will you teach us how to surf, O great one, so we may get back home? [JKL says nothing]


Squidward: Look, surf-boy, are you gonna teach us how to surf, or are we just gonna stand here and stare at you all day?

Patrick: I kinda like staring at him.

[Jack Kahuna Laguna jumps into the water with his surfboard. SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward stare at him. Dolphins jump near the back of JKL’s surfboard. SpongeBob and Patrick start to tear up]

SpongeBob: I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. Have you, Patrick?

Patrick: Not since I saw my first triple-layer cheese cake.

JKL:.. was your first lesson. [returns to his hut]

“SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One (transcript).” Encyclopedia SpongeBobia. N.p., 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

The word “gnarly” has evolved a great deal over time. It has changed from a physical attribute on the surface of a tree to surfer-speak for awesome and intense. It has gone from the standard teenage way of talking, to being a means of portraying a negative stereotype. It has even gone through drastic geographic changes from a strictly California origin to skateboarders and snowboarding to virtually the entire teenage American population in the 1980s. Television and movies were the driving force behind the popularization, as well as the slow decline of this word. Language changes, depending on what we hear regularly, and which cultural groups we choose to be a part of.


Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

Fast times at Ridgemont High. Dir. Amy Heckerling. By Cameron Crowe. Perf. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judge Reinhold. Universal Studios, 1982. Transcript.

“gnarly, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

“Gnarly.” AlphaDictionary * Free English Online Dictionary * Grammar * Word Fun. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“Google Ngram Viewer.” Google Ngram Viewer. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“knurl | nurl, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

Mari, Will. “Will’s Word of the Week: “gnarly”” The Daily. N.p., 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Nguyen, Céline. “SURFIN’ USA.” Surf Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Rippa, Sandy’s. “Gnarly.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 8 July 2003. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.

Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

“Search Totally Kyle Images.” Imgfave. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

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Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 8 (2016)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2016 edition of my course, Language and Societies. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Kayla Hurd:Trepanning Medical Latin: The language barrier between doctor and patient

Melissa Moore: Kamen Rider vs. Fansubbing

Matthew Ashford: Who Carries the Water? An Analysis of Online Disputation Regarding the Flint Water Crisis

Amber Golembiewski: Negative and Positive Comment Discourse Analysis on a Popular Pornography Website

Allison M. Hebel: Hee-Hees, Giggles, and Titters, Oh My! English Lexical Laughter Grades, Associations, and Histories

Caitlin M. Cassady: Language Ideology in Discourses on Physician Assisted Dying: Untangling Threads of Discord in the Case of Brittany Maynard

Adelaide Gillham: Social Invisibility and Dehumanization of Asexuals and Aromantics through Language Policing

Kyle Dunn: Race, Agency, Blame and Gender: Narratives on Police use of Force in a South Carolina High School

Daniel Mora Argüelles: (Sad Beep): Eliciting Meaning from the Interactions between Pragmatics and Non-Linguistic Utterances

Kathleen M. Hanlon-Lundberg: Delivering Agency: Online Birth Stories in the US

Beau Kromberg: My Partner and I: Commitment Terminology within Evolving Heteronormative Linguistic Contexts

Natasha Modi: Examining the Use of Language in Promoting Hindu Patriarchy by Using Vedic Texts

Aaron Taylor: ‘I know words…I have the best words’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Donald Trump’s Face-saving Tactics

Mallory Moore: A Pirate’s Life for Me: A Comprehensive Analysis of What it Means to “Talk Like a Pirate”

Kristy Estabalaya: Tagalog-English Codeswitching in Scripted Television Shows

Gavin Swantick: Latin, Metalinguistics, and the Society of St. Pius X

Andrew Eppens-Gross: Pass the Gaudy Dutchie to the German Side: An Examination of an Early Language Community in Nineteenth Century Detroit

Crystal Mitchell: Echolalia within Children with Autism

Ashlee Jed:Linguistic Norms and Expectations in Gyms with Different Social Spaces

D. Castagna: The Commoditization of Values in the Marketplace: Linguistics Utilized in Marketing Discourse

Debbie Leggett: Speaking Craft Beverage: Building Power, Status, and Economy with Linguistic Capital in the Craft Beverage World

Lexiculture: dwarf

John Anderson

Wayne State University

Cite as: Anderson, John. 2016. Dwarf. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 2. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/dwarf.pdf

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

(Download PDF version)

The word “dwarf” has a long and intricate history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists four different definitions for the noun form of the word. In order, they refer to humans of smaller than ordinary size, mythological creatures with skill in metalwork, small varieties of plants and animals, and stars with a small mass and a large density. Although each of these four definitions will be addressed on some level, the goal of this paper is to analyze the metalanguage surrounding the use of this word specifically in reference to people with one of the many medical conditions referred to as “dwarfism.” How do people feel about this word? What does it mean, and why do some find it offensive?

Etymology: Dwarfs, Dwarves, and Dwarrows

The English word “dwarf” comes etymologically from the Old English “dwergh.” It is possible that it came by way of the Old Norse “dvergr,” or that it comes directly from the Proto-Germanic “dwergoz” which derives from Proto-Indo-European “dhwérgwhos” (OED Online). The meaning of this word is unclear, although it possibly comes from a root meaning “to deceive.” In Germanic mythology and legend, dwarfs have a reputation as tricksters (Battles). Although generally honest, they follow after a folkloric pattern of supernatural creatures that give people what they ask for, rather than what they mean to ask for.

There is also some disagreement as to whether the plural form should be “dwarfs,” as the plural of roof is roofs, or “dwarves,” as in wolf to wolves. A refined search of Google Ngram, using only those instances of “dwarves” and “dwarfs” used as nouns and including works of fiction, shows that while dwarfs is uniformly more popular, the numbers are not as far apart as one might think:


Many attribute the origin of “dwarves” to J.R.R. Tolkien, who used this spelling in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These charts show that, although he played an important role in its entering mainstream English, this spelling did not originate with him. Most of the usages of “dwarves” before 1940 are in books about Norse mythology, with a few references to human anatomy. In 1937, both The Hobbit and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were released. Based on this data, the influence of the Disney film was more successful in codifying the spelling, at least until around the 1960’s, when Tolkien’s works became more popular. The usages of “dwarves” after 1980 are more varied, but many are fantasies in the style of Tolkien (Google Ngram). Interestingly, Tolkien himself considered his use of “dwarves” in The Hobbit to be a misspelling. “The real historical plural of ‘dwarf,’” he wrote, “is dwarrows anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit too archaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word dwarrow” (Tolkien). The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the actual Middle English form of the word, although it provides no examples of its use, nor does it show up on Google Ngram. Today, both “dwarfs” and “dwarves” are commonly used, but the latter is most often used for creatures of myth or fantasy, and the former for humans with dwarfism, though this is not a hard and fast rule.

Mythology: The Origin of Dwarfs

The concept of dwarfs originates in Germanic folklore. The dwarfs of mythology bear a basic resemblance to the dwarfs of fairy tales: they are small creatures that dwell within the earth and have skill in working metals. Additionally, they were seen as a race created before humanity and were associated with ancient megaliths. They bring diseases such as warts and fever, but also are masters of healing. They shun sunlight, may or may not be spirits of the dead, and are reckoned alongside the gods and elves (Battles 32-37). While sometimes portrayed as comic figures, the race of dwarfs was envied by humanity for their wealth and skill, and they may even have been worshipped during the Viking age (Battles 70).

There actually seems to be some debate as to whether the Norse even thought of their dwarfs as small. This idea can be found in many places on the Internet, including Wikipedia (Talk:Dwarf). Proponents of the human-sized dwarf theory will call attention to the fact that dwarfs are never described as small until the thirteenth-century sagas. They also cite as evidence a carving in which the dwarf smith Reginn is shown next to the human hero Sigurd. However, there are two main pieces of evidence against this theory. First, while Reginn is a Norse dwarf name, the Reginn from this myth is not a dwarf at all. The Eddic poem “Reginsmal,” believed to be older than the sagas, describes him as a man – a mortal human – and only “dvergr of voxt”: a dwarf in stature (Battles 38). Why would the poem refer to Regin’s dwarfish height unless it was unusual? Reginn’s dwarf height was probably understood as being smaller than average, as the alternative is that he was unusually tall. Of these two interpretations, it is most likely that the image of a short dwarf persisted into the thirteenth century, rather than dwarfs went from giants to small creatures. Secondly, the carvings in question come from the Hylestad Stave Church, which was built in the late twelfth century at the earliest, and, even then, is a Christian church that cannot be said to accurately reflect the beliefs of Norse traditional religion (Giles). While the oldest sources, of which there are few to begin with, may never specifically describe dwarfs as small, they never give any indication that they are not. So it is safe to assume that when people used the word “dwarf,” they had a small creature in mind.


Reginn (left) and Sigurd (right); Hylestad stave church, 12th century Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University (Giles)

“Dwarf” as a Scientific Term: Animals and Plants, Stars and Planets

According to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and Google Ngram, most of the collocates – that is, words used frequently along with the word in question – of “dwarf” are used in this sense. Some examples from COHA include “species” at number fifteen, “star” at number eight, “trees” at number two, and “white” in a clear first place. Google Ngram’s charts show that for more than fifty years, “white dwarf” has been two to ten times as common as the next runner up. It starts to come into common usage in the early 1920’s. This makes sense, as the term “white dwarf star” was coined by astronomer Willem Luyten in 1922 (Holberg).


Medical dwarfism has been known since ancient times. Images and even remains of human dwarfs have been found in Egypt, dating as far back as 4500 BCE. However, this was not seen as a form of physical handicap, and did not preclude one from holding positions of authority (Kozma). Even some gods were depicted as dwarfs. However, not every society was as accepting as the ancient Egyptians, and throughout much of history, people have alienated and persecuted those who are different. One of the ways this has happened is through the use of pejoratives and derogatory slurs. Could “dwarf” be considered such a word?

“Dwarfism” is the generally accepted common name for the group of over two hundred genetic disorders that cause an abnormal reduction of growth. The most common of these is achondroplasia, which prevents the long bones of the body such as those in the legs and arms from reaching their full size. This is what Google Ngram shows regarding the popularity of various terminologies for medical dwarfism:


Achondroplasia enters the English vocabulary in the early 1900’s, and doesn’t gain or lose much popularity over the years. This is not surprising for a scientific medical term, which would be used in only certain contexts. Dwarfism is about the same age, although it has been used in writing much more commonly, though in the past forty years or so it has been on the decline. This may represent the effects of a modern desire for political correctness. However, the generally most common term, as well as the oldest of these three, is “midget.”

The root of the word is “midge,” a variety of small, marsh-dwelling fly with a short lifespan. Naturally, this word is seen as unpleasant by many. Interestingly, the word midget was once used to describe “proportionate dwarfs,” that is, people who were less than five feet tall, but otherwise resembling healthy adults. During the late 1800’s, the era of sideshows and circuses, to call a little person a midget was to imply that they were well-formed. It was almost an affectionate term at the time. In fact the original reason why the Little People of America changed its name from “Midgets of America” was to be more inclusive to those dwarfs considered “disproportionate” (Kennedy). The connection of “midget” to this sort of physical hierarchy, along with its link to the sideshow era, contributes to its unpopularity.

In April of 2009, the New York Times manual of style made a rare revision, and declared, “that people of unusually (and medically) short stature should be referred to as dwarfs, not ‘midgets’” (Harris). For a long time, though, the Times freely used “midgets,” and only when deputy style editor Philip Corbett received letters from offended readers and did further research into the subject, uncovering its dark and problematic history, was the decision made to change. So it can be said, at least concerning the past several years, that the word “dwarf” is a perfectly acceptable term, and a welcome alternative to “midget.” However, what is considered acceptable terminology one day may not necessarily last long. One example is the various words used throughout history to describe people with cognitive illnesses, including “aments,” “cretins,” and even “idiots,” and of course, the still highly controversial “mentally retarded.” It is not at all uncommon for word meanings to change rapidly.

Portrayal in Media: Various Viewpoints

Google Ngram shows that between 1800 and 2000, “dwarf” was almost consistently used more often in works of fiction. The line graph shows that use of “dwarf” reached several peaks throughout the nineteenth century. This was the period in which the Grimm brothers published various editions of their collected fairytales, such as Snow White. Jacob Grimm was also a scholar of Germanic mythology, and he sought to revive interest in the folklore of his country. It was what Grimm found in legends that inspired both Disney and Tolkien to put dwarfs in the spotlight again in 1937, starting another rise in popularity that lasted until about 1960. But its long association with legendary creatures is what makes “dwarf” a potentially problematic term for referring to human people.


Peter Dinklage, an actor perhaps most well-known for his current role in the HBO series, Game of Thrones, explains his dislike for the way that dwarfs tend to be portrayed in works of fantasy:

“I try not to read too much into it, but there’s a bit of a bias, where you’re thought of as a mystical creature, which is a bit absurd…. I have a great sense of humor — and a dark sense of humor — about everything, but it is a bit narrow-minded sometimes, where if they have a dwarf character, the shoes have to curl up at the end, he has this inherent wisdom, he isn’t sexual, all of that. You look at something like ‘Snow White,’ and each of the dwarves is just one thing — this one sneezes, this one is angry, this one is tired. And that’s sometimes still true for modern-day stories. But it’s not just for dwarves, that could be the case for anybody, for women, for people of color. Right now it’s Middle Eastern people who are all playing terrorists. It’s short-sighted. But life is too short — no pun intended — to be interested in roles that haven’t got any meat to them.” (Vineyard)

Dinklage believes that use of the word “dwarf” serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Still, while short actors will often find themselves typecast as one-dimensional fairytale characters, even average-sized actors are rarely able to choose what roles they want to play. And for Warwick Davis, an English actor possessing a rarer form of dwarfism known as spondyleopiphyseal dysplasia congenital, his unique stature was what allowed him to enter the field of his career to begin with. When he was eleven years old, his grandmother heard that short actors were needed to play Ewoks in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Today he runs an agency for actors under five feet tall or taller than seven feet. Davis does not mind the use of the word dwarf, or even midget, believing that it is better to use the wrong word than to simply avoid conversation and miss out on the opportunity to gather a better understanding of people who are different. He considers being short part of what made him who he is, and tries to handle adversity with a sense of humor. “If I’d been average height I don’t think I’d have been quite so outgoing… you tend to amplify your personality a little bit, just so as you’re not forgotten” (Gilber).

So, being short can get you a place in the theater. Isn’t this just a continuation of the Barnum-era sideshow? While many of the roles that dwarfs appear in can be trivial or downright insulting, many see them as a way of earning money in order to bring them closer to their life goals, whether that is acting, painting, or medicine (Harris).

Conclusion: It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

What are the alternative terms? “Midget” is clearly much more offensive. “Little People” has the same connotations of fantastic creatures, along with a sense of someone who is less important – as in “standing up for the little guy.” Nor does it fit well into every kind of usage. Matt Roloff, former president of the Little People of America, believes that “to an intellectual,” “Little Person” can sound more demeaning than midget (Kennedy).

“Most individuals,” says Dr. Betty M. Adelson, “prefer simply to be called by their given names” (Harris). Regardless of the phrasing, dwarfs are human beings, and those who search for a word to describe people of short stature must be careful to avoid defining them by their condition. This remains true for any person. A derisive tone can make even a generally accepted word sound offensive. Changing a word alone will do little to change people’s opinions. A change in metalanguage begins not in the lexicon, but within the culture.


Battles, Paul. “Dwarves in Germanic Literature: Deutsche Mythologie or Grimm’s Myths?” Published in: The Shadow Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, edited by Tom Shippey. Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies. Tempe, Arizona. 2005.

Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). Created by MArk Davies, Brigham Young University. <http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/&gt;

“dwarf, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web.

Gilber, Girard. “Size matters: Warwick Davis is no small talent.” The Independant. 22 October 2011. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/size-matters-warwick-davis-is-no-small-talent-2372841.html&gt;

Giles. “Essay: Doors – Entrances and Exits, Liminality and Sacred Space.” UiO Museum of Cultural History. Published 18 October 2014, modified 19 October 2014. <http://www.khm.uio.no/english/research/projects/religion-and-money/religion-and-money-blog/posts/doors-–-entrances-and-exits-liminality-and-sacred-.html&gt;

Google Ngram. Jean-Baptiste Michel*, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden*. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010) < http://books.google.com/ngrams&gt;

Harris, Lynn. “Who you calling a ‘midget’?” Salon. 16 July 2009. <http://www.salon.com /2009/07/16/m_word/>

Holberg, J. B. (2005). “How Degenerate Stars Came to be Known as White Dwarfs”. American Astronomical Society Meeting 207: 1503.

Kennedy, Dan. “What is Dwarfism?” Big Enough. 2005. <http://www.pbs.org/pov/ bigenough/special_dwarfism_ety.php>

Kozma, Chahira. “Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt.” American Journal of Medical Genetics. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 27 December 2005. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2005/12/051227102614.htm>

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Tolkien, J.R.R. “Letter #17.” Letter to Stanley Unwin, Chairman of Allen and Unwin. 15 October 1937.

Vineyard, Jen. “Peter Dinklage Confirms Dominic Cooper For ‘My Dinner With Hervé'”. The Playlist. 10 November 2011. <http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/ 21acc530-0bc1-11e1-817a-123138165f92>


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;.

Lexiculture Papers, vol. 2

At long last, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of nine new essays in the Lexiculture Project, my collection of undergraduate research papers on the history and cultural complexities of individual English words.   These constitute the contributions to the project from the 2014 (!!) edition of the course, long delayed to to editorial sloth, and will constitute Volume 2 of the series, with Volume 3 to follow in the summer.   Rather than publish these all at once, I’ll be publishing them one at a time, every Wednesday for the next nine weeks, clearly indicated with authorship, and including a link to the PDF version of the article for download as well as the HTML version.  When they’re all published, all of the links will be permanently archived in the Lexiculture section of the site.  Thanks to my students for their forbearance throughout this process.


New publication: Talking about Impact

Over the past couple of months I’ve been putting together a new project, a brief handbook aimed at pre-tenure faculty members in the humanities and social sciences. It actually started as a blog post here, then expanded well out of control, and now here we are.

Today, I’m pleased to announce the open-access publication of Talking about Impact: a handbook for pre-tenure humanists and social scientists, through the Wayne State University Digital Commons.   My own work straddles several disciplinary realms, and it’s been fascinating, over the past decade, to speak to colleagues from disciplines as far afield as Semitic philology and cognitive neuroscience about what they value, and why.  Being on the tenure track is extremely stressful, and nearly everyone feels anxiety about the process.   When going up for tenure, your work will be read and evaluated by people who have no knowledge of your field, and often have very different ideas about how to evaluate scholarship.  It’s worth taking some time to organize some knowledge about how and why your work matters, to leave as little as possible to chance.  Talking about Impact is meant to serve that function for people across the humanities and social sciences, whether they’re tenured or not.

I’m making the handbook available for everyone, freely, under a Creative Commons license, in the hope that it will be of broad use.   I decided against traditional publication because it’s an article-length work, but hardly the sort of thing that a journal would publish, and in any case, any venue like that would have far too restricted an audience.   Please feel free to download and distribute widely.