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

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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.

Throughout history: a history

Throughout history, undergraduates have peppered the opening sentences of their term papers with a phrase.  That phrase, of course, is ‘throughout history’.  And no matter how much we (college instructors) may tell them that it is too vague and general to possibly be useful in almost any paper, we run into it again and again.  But where did it come from?

A quick search on Google Ngram Viewer reveals that not only has throughout history not been used throughout history, but it is of relatively recent origin, and increasing rapidly:


The first instance I’ve been able to track down of these two words in order is from 1761, in Henry Brooke’s The Tryal and Cause of the Roman Catholics (1761: 104):

Many and various, throughout History, have been the Mischiefs, the Miseries, the inexpressible Calamities, that attended the King-deposing and King-killing Doctrine.

After that, we get them in quick succession, with new instances in 1764, 1767, 1769, and 1774 (you can see the little bump on the left of the Ngram).  Thereafter it remains in rare but steady use for nearly a century, and then really starts to take off through the 20th century.   One wonders (though I wouldn’t want to make too much of it) whether it’s a product of Enlightenment thinking or the broader historical perspectives of Enlightenment and modernist thought.  Opinions on the course of history abound in 20th century thought, of course.

And, although Ngram viewer gets really weird after 2000, so I can’t extrapolate the curve, I am sad to say that even the most esteemed authors use it in recent works:

This study is a comparative analysis of all numerical notation systems known to have existed throughout history – approximately one hundred distinct systems, most of which can be grouped into eight distinct subgroups. (Chrisomalis 2010: 3)

Ahem.  Well, I can defend my use in that I really am talking about all the numerical notation systems used throughout 5000 years of written history, right?   I suppose the broader point is that this phrase is at least ten times more common now than it was 100 years ago, and we should hardly be surprised, then, that our students pick it up.  After all, they have to get it somewhere, don’t they?


Beyond Cargo Cult Science (Cafe Sci Colorado, 11/19, 7:30pm)

Are you attending the American Anthropological Association meetings this week in Denver?  Feel like hanging out with me, having a beer, and hearing about some big ideas?  Check out my talk, co-sponsored by Cafe Sci Colorado and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, ‘Beyond Cargo Cult Science: Reclaiming Anthropology from the Fringe‘, held at Brooklyn’s near the convention center (map) at 7:30pm on Thursday, Nov. 19.   Many thanks to the SAS (a section of the AAA) and the folks at Cafe Sci Colorado for putting this all together to help expose social-scientific ideas to a broad audience.  It’s an open event, free of charge, and if you’re already registered for the conference you can find it on the program here.

In his famous essay, Cargo cult science’, the physicist Richard Feynman used the anthropological concept of the cargo cult to illustrate the dangers of those who adopt the trappings of science without understanding the fundamental nature of the enterprise. The risk of self-delusion, he argued, was greatest when this form-without-function was followed mindlessly by scientists: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’

Forty years later, anthropology’s own status as a science is in question. Pseudoscientific ideas abound – claims of ancient aliens and lost civilizations on the History Channel suggest that there are a lot of self-deluded fools. Feynman didn’t think much of social science, because of its annoying lack of laws, but he was wrong. We can and do scientific anthropology as long as we don’t fool ourselves. We only need to be able to ask What would convince me that I’m wrong? and Why should I believe I’m right? In this talk, I will show, using linguistic evidence, how non-specialists can think critically about pseudoscientific ideas in anthropology, and why it important to care about anthropological junk science in the media.

Linguistic anthropology is particularly open to spurious claims of cultural contact across thousands of years and kilometres because most people are not linguists, so it is possible to make superficially plausible claims with limited knowledge. Against this position, it is possible to show that with a little knowledge and a critical eye, we can separate verifiable long-distance similarities – the remarkable new discovery that Navajo is related to some languages of central Siberia – from wildly implausible claims, such as that the Maya were descended from Egyptians. Learning how to think about linguistic evidence for cultural contact is a powerful inoculation against bunk.

And, for those conference attendees who haven’t had enough strange science, you can then check out my panel, ‘Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe‘ on Friday morning, 10:15-12:00, in room 607 of the convention center.  Hope to see you there!

… or, you know, maybe October

Apologies for the long delay in posting – I have been juggling too many balls and this one has dropped.  But have no fear – perhaps it … bounced?  … and is now … coming back into my hand?  This metaphor needs to be taken out back and shot.

In the interest of actually giving you some real content, here are some brief musings on things I’ve posted recently to my Twitter feed:

Old (from 2012) evidence of a new (to us) medieval Viking settlement in Canada – this one on Baffin Island, probably Helluland of the Icelandic sagas.  This is becoming increasingly a settled matter – there’s too much European content in artifact assemblages from the eastern Arctic and sub-Arctic for anything else to be so.  Still no Vikings in Minnesota, though, except the football ones.

Nick Enfield, Mark Dingemanse, and Francisco Torreira at the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics won a prestigious (to some) Ig Nobel Prize for their work showing that ‘huh’ is a universal word cross-linguistically.   In the spirit of ‘make you laugh and then make you think’, but this is one of the finest cross-linguistic comparisons I’ve read in a long time, with lots of methodological controls.

And in sad, but predictable, and actually, not all that sad news after all, Rome is abandoning the Roman numerals!  Or rather, addresses and street names that use Roman numerals will be replaced with Western numerals over the next few years.  Reminds me of the first time I used the Montreal metro and was momentarily baffled by the announcement for “pine oeuf” station, which is of course Station Pie IX (Pius IX).

Where I’ve been (and will continue to be)


For those of you wondering where I’ve been, here’s the stack of grading I just received on Tuesday. It took me the better part of an hour just to get it sorted out the way I like it. Staples removed, paper clips removed, binder clips added, collated with all of the previous comments I’ve made on earlier drafts. I also have the students write up a list of edits that made just as bullet points. 29 papers, ranging in length from 21 to 77 pages. So classes are done, but this stack is probably a good 30 hours of work and these are papers I’ve already read once before. Coffee mug included for scale ( coffee included for sanity). I’ll be back in May.