English local elections 2013: a linguistic conundrum

Yesterday’s local elections in England saw the UK Independence Party (UKIP) win a remarkable 25% of the vote. Immigration is a key concern of many UKIP voters, including immigration from EU countries.

In 1978, I moved from the UK to Italy, where I lived until 2002. I’m pretty sure that, as viewed from the United Kingdom, I wasn’t a British “immigrant” in Italy but an “expatriate”. The same applies to all of the many Brits who now live in Spain or Tuscany or other parts of the European Union. Not to mention the US and the rest of the world.

So why are Brits in foreign lands “expats”, and foreigners moving to Britain “immigrants”?

Any thoughts?

By Marian Dougan 

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. For me the difference between “expat” and “immigrant” is the notion of permanence – an expat is seen as someone temporary (even when it’s for 24 years as in your case, or getting on for 20 years as in my case!), while immigration has something definitive about it – immigrants don’t normally go back to live in their native lands.
    I would imagine that some of those referred to as immigrants by politicians and journalists probably think of themselves as expats, while others concerned probably don’t know themselves!

  2. I’m curious to see what will happen with UKIP in the future. It seems they’ve earned themselves an acceptable face of the kind that prevents the BNP from gathering any momentum. Thanks to trouble in Europe, and the failures of the Con-Lib coalition, they’ve managed to soak up a lot of protest votes.

    As for being expats, it’s an interesting one. When you say you were considered an expatriate in Italy, is that from other Brits living there, or from Italians? Is there a particular distinction in Italian? Do they also use different words to refer to newcomers to Italy and Italians abroad?

    To be honest, my first instinct would be to consider it a case of stereotypical British hubris, and the idea that we believe immigrants in Britain move there because they are attracted to the country (for whatever reason). Brits themselves, on the other hand, don’t leave their homeland behind, but merely live outside of it (in order to enjoy the better weather, food, health care and so on). I suppose we see that in the changed sense of the word ‘expatriate’, from referring to someone banished/exiled from their home country, to basically someone living outside it.

    Incidentally, living in Germany it’s interesting to see the terms for immigrants also affected by political correctness here, with one of the current popular choices being “people with a background of migration”!

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