Poms, Paddies, Jocks & Taffs

I wrote this piece about British national terms after my Cross-Cultural Communication lecturer asked me about the differences between different UK-ish groups. Anyone/everyone disagree?

The most important bit, and by far the most offensive to get wrong, is recognising that the non-English nations within the UK can never be called ‘England’. England, Scotland and Wales are Great Britain; Great Britain and Northern Ireland together are the UK; and citizens of the UK are referred to as British citizens (the word ‘Britain’ on its own doesn’t have a set meaning). If you call someone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland ‘English’, they’ll be extremely cross. This is a particular problem for non-native English speakers, since many languages don’t discriminate between ‘British’ and ‘English’.

However, there are also plenty of ways of using technically correct forms that can cause confusion, and sometimes offence.

Most Scottish or Welsh people don’t mind being referred to as ‘British’, although most wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. However, a Scottish or Welsh person with strong political nationalist views might take offence at it. In general, it’s best to describe someone who’s Scottish or Welsh as simply Scottish or Welsh, although a mixed group of people from England, Scotland and Wales can be referred to as British without offending anyone.

With Northern Irish people, there’s a Protestant/Catholic divide (in the sense of heritage/culture rather than actual religions). Most NI Protestants are happy to identify as British; most NI Catholics would be angry to be described as British, even when they’re in a group that also includes people from England, Scotland and Wales. You can’t even sidestep that one by using ‘Northern Irish’, as most Catholics would just describe themselves as ‘Irish’ (particularly as many Catholics born and resident in Northern Ireland choose to carry [Southern] Irish passports, since the Republic of Ireland grants citizenship to anyone born anywhere on the island of Ireland, and Irish citizenship gives you full residency and voting rights anywhere in the UK). Nor can you sidestep it by using ‘Irish’, because many Protestants would be offended to be described as ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Northern Irish’.

Whether a person born in England says they are ‘English’ or ‘British’ is dependent on several factors: whether they have mixed UK heritage, whether or not they’ve grown up in London (‘English’ tends to have more rural, village green-ish connotations, whereas ‘British’ is more urban and ethnically mixed), if they’re from an ethnic minority (black and Asian people in England generally refer to themselves as ‘black British’ and ‘Asian British’, because they don’t identify so well with the stereotype of English), and political affiliations (because of the connotations above, people who are more conservative are more likely to identify as English and vice versa, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule).

However, most people born in England won’t be offended by being called the term they don’t personally use (I’m not offended to be described as English, and my Tory friends aren’t offended to be described as British) – I think this is largely because England is traditionally the dominant nation/culture within the UK, and in most English people’s minds there isn’t much of a difference between English/British. The exceptions here would include a few extreme English nationalists (but a far smaller percentage of the population than in Scotland or Wales) if called British, and possibly a few people from ethnic minority groups if called English.

(the entirely crazy-old-man David Duff has rightly pointed out that in the spirit of the headline, the Welsh are Taffs. CHANGED)

23 thoughts on “Poms, Paddies, Jocks & Taffs”

  1. Worth mentioning (for the benefit of any Americans reading this, I'm not sure what the Aussie usage is) that "Asian" in Britain refers to Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi heritage rather than Chinese/Japanese/Korean. I've seen this bemuse a few American colleagues.

  2. "the word ‘Britain’ on its own doesn’t have a set meaning"

    If you pursue sort-of Linda-Colleyish thoughts about Britons, and see the British project as turning on a political collaboration between Protestant elites in England and lowland Scotland (in which the latter were given access to a wider, indeed, global, stamping ground in return for general subservience), then it's plausible to think that the most distinctively British people are specifically those kind of elite Scots–Alec Douglas-Home, James Bond, Rory Stewart, people like that. Being British matters for them, in a way that it doesn't nearly so much for most other people.

  3. Steff: very good point, Aussie meaning of "Asian" is like American meaning, I thnk reflecting relative numbers of immigrants.

    Chris: aye, but that's "British" rather than "Britain". I decided for this primer not to go into the "North British" movement among Victorian/early C20 posh Scots. Do Anthony Hopkins and Michael Sheen count in this as well? Do all Celts who talk in RP…?

  4. Wouldn't disagree with any of that, but would (partly in jest) make an observation about how the terms get used in the media. A successful Scottish sports star (see: Andy Murray) is usually referred to as "British" by the Anglo-centric UK media, though will mysteriously mutate into "Scottish" once he enters decline and starts losing more often than winning.

    But while the British-to-Scottish thing isn't actually inaccurate, though is amusing, many Irish people are irked by the tendency of the British media to casually refer to successful Irish people (and I'm not talking about Northern Irish here) as "British". Something they'd never do with – for example – an Irish criminal. Both Bono and Bob Geldof appeared in the BBC's "100 Greatest Britons" list, which – quite aside from the merits of putting them in the "100 Greatest Anything" list – is just plain wrong.

    The same is true of sports stars… I lost count of the number of times Dublin golfer Pádraig Harrington was referred to as "British golfer, Pádraig Harrington" by commentators during his remarkable recent run of three Major wins. Curiously it doesn't happen so much now that his form has dipped.

    Anyhoo, just an observation about the media rather than your blogpost which is accurate as far as I can tell.

  5. "I've seen this bemuse a few American colleagues…"

    Not surprising – it infuriates a Singaporean friend of mine too. Quite why this terminology has come into common use, I couldn't say.

  6. Jim: I'd say the British media have a case for Bob – he's a man who lives in the UK, became famous in the UK, has spent most of his life living in the UK, has a British wife and British kids. Clive James and Germaine Greer ought to make the list on the same basis. For Bono (who lived in Dublin and then As International Tax Exile Megastar, with a year or two in London when U2 were first taking off), it's just fucking ignorant.

    Julia: not sure why it's any better/worse either way. There are a billion and a bit East Asians; there are slightly fewer but still a billion and a bit South Asians; it's not wrong to call either group "Asian"…

  7. Alec Douglas-Home, James Bond, Rory Stewart

    "North Britons". Wilkes didn't pick that title simply because the ministry rag was called "The Briton", but because in Bute's time the class of people Chris identifies actually described themselves as North Britons rather than Scots, an affectation Wilkes rightly saw as absurd.

    From a left wing perspective I and quite a lot of people I know call myself English, despite having done a fair bit of growing up in London and now living in a large northern city. I don't think of myself as British because the British identity seems to be purely a political construct and one constructed by people I find generally unsympathetic.

  8. Chris – this is properly interesting, and (apart from NI-ness, which is generally baffling) the main thing I wasn't sure about.

    To me, "British" is a cosmopolitan thing that represents London, inclusivity and all the massively obvious things that the different British Isles cultures have in common, whereas "English" is the EDL, vans flying George Crosses, and people whining about how the dole-scroungers in Scotland and Wales vote Labour and stole all their money.

    I'm really intrigued to get a handle on how that kind of perspective is shaped.

  9. The English/British thing has changed over the last 30 years, hasn't it? As demonstrated by the decline of the union flag at England football games for St George's. I guess to do with rise of celtic nationalisms with Great Britain, but I've not really thought about it.

  10. Why not refer to them in the same way they speak of each other in day-to-day conversation, that is, English ***** (expletive deleted), Jocks, Taffs, Paddies (or if you want to be specific, Proddies and Fenians) and Pakis?

    What? What's wrong?

    What did I say?

  11. On Northern Ireland, I think you'd be better dropping references to "Catholics" and "Protestants" and just sticking with "Nationalists" and "Unionists". There are (I was once told at length by an NI Unionist) a significant number of middle-class Catholic Unionists nowadays (follow the money), so it might be easier to stick to purely political terms and note that they tend to correlate with religious affiliation. After all, people can't tell by looking if they're talking to a Catholic or Protestant, so they're either going to risk giving offense by guessing, or they're going to have to ask – so they might as well ask directly rather than try to deduce it from claimed religion.

  12. "After all, people can’t tell by looking if they’re talking to a Catholic or Protestant…"

    I think you'll find "their eyes are too close together" is the general rule for differentiating between the taigs and proddies in nornirn. A rumour started by Protestants, relating to "Catholic inbreeding".

  13. Just one (relatively minor) thing – 'grown up in London' really should be 'grown up in a big city', because as it stands it seems to be excluding Birmingham from the category of 'urban and ethnically diverse' which is clearly wrong and makes us Brummies sound like hicks. (and yes, I realise that a lot of us do sound like hicks, but that doesn't mean we are)

  14. What about English regional identity, such as (perhaps only in) Cornwall? Does this trump Englishness or is it a really minor thing?

  15. Poms was a term used for all immigrants from the uk up until the 1970's. With the left wing assault on all things british in full swing at that time, the jocks especially decided to get out from under and pretend Empire had nothing to do with them.

  16. As recently as 50 years ago – watch contemporary movies, especially with WW2 settings – "England" and "English" were used predominantly for "British", never mind the sensitivities of Scots or Welsh. With the rise of the National Front in the 70s, the use of "English" became associated with racist nationalism, hence a certain squeamishness of anyone inclined the other way to be identified thus. I do not identify with racist nationalists, but I'm proud to call myself English, though my heritage is Anglo-Irish/French/Jewish/Scottish/Welsh, since I was born in England and have always lived here.

    Burrow down a little further, though, and you may find that there are some who would classify their identities even more specifically (yes, I mean you, Yorkshire-folk).

  17. @JuliaM
    I assume that Asian = subcontinental in Britain because we don't have that many east Asians here except Chinese (or rather we didn't back when these terms were being decided) so you could get away with just assuming east Asian looking = Chinese, but we do have a lot of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who wouldn't like being called "Indian", so we needed a good blanket term for "everyone from the subcontinent". Also a lot of them were, of course, former Ugandan Asians.

    I would be quite OK with describing Bono as British, because I reckon it would irritate him.

  18. <blockquote cite="#commentbody-177505">
    chris y :
    From a left wing perspective I and quite a lot of people I know call myself English…I don’t think of myself as British because the British identity seems to be purely a political construct and one constructed by people I find generally unsympathetic.

    Same here. Although I think in my case it's from spending a lot of time in Canada, often around Canadians of Scottish heritage. To me, 'British' refers to an identification with 'Great Britain' and the accompanying colonial ethos. I find English both more accurate as a way of denoting my identity (I grew up in England, my cultural heritage is English, not Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Irish, Gibraltan, Falkland Islander etc.) and I personally think it has somewhat less unpleasant political overtones.

  19. Um,

    The United Kingdom is a political entity, and refers to the union of the Crowns of England(plus Wales) and Scotland. This does not necessarily include Northern Ireland.

    If N. Ireland were to leave the UK would remain. If England or Scotland were to leave then the UK would dissolve.

  20. Afraid you're wrong here, CC. The Union of the Crowns took place in 1603, when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England.

    The Acts of Union of 1707 created the Kingdom of Great Britain by uniting the legally-separate (albeit sharing a single monarch) Kingdoms of England and Scotland.

    The Acts of Union of 1800 created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, by uniting the legally-separate (albeit sharing a single monarch) Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

    In 1927, the UKoGBaI was renamed to include the 'northern', for some combination of accuracy and tact.

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