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Book Review

OXFORD GUIDE TO BRITISH AND AMERICAN CULTURE edited by Jonathan Crowther and Kathryn Kavanagh, published by Oxford University Press, 1999 ISBN 0 19 431333 6 (Hardback edition)

This review has been written by Małgorzata Zdybiewska, who teaches British Studies at the NKJO Radom and is a contributor to the British Studies Web Pages.

George Bernard Shaw said it best: America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language. But it is not just pronunciation or vocabulary that separate the British and the Americans. It seems there is a great cultural gap that divides these two nations which might be perplexing to serious students and teachers of English who are eager to explore the English language through its culture. That is why a new OXFORD GUIDE TO BRITISH AND AMERICAN CULTURE published by OUP in 1999 is such a valuable addition to the growing collection of reference books and encyclopaedias focusing on British and American Studies.

The OXFORD GUIDE includes over 100,000 encyclopaedic entries on British and American literature, the arts, politics, institutions, entertainment, and everyday life. An important feature of the OXFORD GUIDE is the inclusion of information on the special connotation that entries might have for British and American people. Apart from factual information the reader may find "longer entries" in the form of either "notes" or longer "articles". It is certainly food for thought for those fascinated by cross-cultural differences. The GUIDE offers 250 articles on a large variety of topics of which the following list gives a flavour: Accent and Dialect; Armed forces in Britain and in the USA; Character and Characteristics (including a humorous look at stereotypes); Education both in Britain and the US; Legal systems in both countries; Multicultural Britain and the US; Humour; Pubs and Pub names; Weddings; and Youth Organisations.

Both the notes and articles are written in a lucid and clear style and those who relish a good reference book for its own sake will find hours of interesting reading here. I was especially fascinated by an article on Gardens and Yards which explains the notable differences both in vocabulary and cultural connotations between Britain and the US in this aspect of everyday life. I think that this article, like others in the book, may be an excellent starting point for many cross-cultural discussions on differences between British and American lifestyles in a British or American Studies class.

A pedantic and curious dictionary user will always test a dictionary by trying to discover those inevitable gaps and entries that have not been included. For example, there is no mention of Manx cat, a butty or brogues. In defence of the editors it could be claimed that Manx cats are a rare species, threatened with extinction, a butty, the colloquial word for a sandwich, is used mainly in the north of England, and not many people wear brogues nowadays because they have been replaced by Eco shoes. However, all these terms, and many others, can be found in the latest version of Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary which is an ideal twin companion to Oxford Guide to British and American Culture.

The truth is that for every gap that a curious reader will inevitably find, this GUIDE is full of compensations. One needs only to flip to the numerous references to the latest films, new types of pop entertainment and sporting events. The dictionary gives interesting explanations not only on the origin of the phrase "the full monty" but also allows one to make an important distinction between "Chippendale" and the "Chippendales". Polish learners of English who are so fond of skipping definite articles should be made aware of that significant difference in meaning!

ELT teachers will also definitely appreciate the high quality colour pages that include flags, maps, and the variety the landscapes and different houses in both countries. I especially recommend two colour pages with interesting commentaries on possessions. In the two photographs the possessions of an American family and a British family are laid out for the photographer in front of their houses. It is interesting to see which possessions each family has chosen to display, and what item they treasure most. And what about a typical Polish family? - you may ask your own class of Polish ELT learners. I would like to mention that OUP have made these two photographs into a large-size poster and they can be used as an excellent visual stimulus for cross-cultural discussions on British, American and Polish lifestyles. Some lucky teachers were able to get them during the 1999 IATEFL Conference at Katowice. I have a suggestion and a kind request to the OUP publisher - please make some more posters of the same kind. They will be most welcome by ELT teachers in Poland and not only those interested in teaching English through culture.

I highly recommend the OXFORD GUIDE TO BRITISH AND AMERICAN CULTURE for both students and teachers of British and American Studies. This book can be described as an indispensable guide to the great cultural ocean that divides the British and the Americans. It should become a valuable addition to the collection of reference books in libraries all over Poland, especially the British Studies Resource Points. The best thing, however, is to have it on your own bookshelf where it will be very handy, indeed!


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