The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “expat” domesticated?

Q: On WNYC, Brian Lehrer invited “expats” from Seattle and Denver to call in with their opinions on the merits of their ex-cities (music scene, weather, microbrews, etc.). Has the term “expat” been domesticated?

A: We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, and all of them define “expat” as an informal shortening of the noun “expatriate.”

As for “expatriate,” all the dictionaries define the noun as someone who’s living in a foreign country—not in a new part of his or her own country.

Although lexicographers haven’t yet recognized the domestication of “expat,” the usage is definitely out there.

A search of online databases suggests that the use of “expats” for people moving within their own country began showing up nearly a dozen years ago.

The website Mountain West News, for example, has this headline on an Oct. 1, 2003, article about Californians moving to the Rocky Mountains region: “California’s expats brought their politics.”

And an Oct. 15, 2003, article on the website City Limits reports that “scores of New York expats have joined lawsuits” against 26 Poconos-area builders, realtors and appraisers.

Although this new use of “expat” seems to have originated in the US, American dictionaries say the original use of the term as a shortened form of “expatriate” is “chiefly British.”

The OED, which considers “expat” a colloquialism, has only two examples for the usage—from 1962 and 1968.

The latest citation is from the Jan. 25, 1968, issue of the now-defunct BBC magazine The Listener: “The ‘expats,’ as the expatriate British refer to themselves, are understandably fond of Ghana.”

Interestingly, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has four citations from US publications for this supposedly British usage, though some of the cites refer to British expatriates.

Here’s an example from the May 21, 1961, issue of the New York Times: “The easygoing Malays still maintain many Britons, whom they call expatriates, or ‘expats,’ in key positions.”

When the noun “expatriate” entered English in the early 1800s, it referred to someone “expatriated”—that is, forced into exile.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from an 1818 issue of the Quarterly Review: “Patriots and expatriates are alike the children of circumstances.”

The English noun (as well as the verb) “expatriate” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin prefix ex- (out) and noun patria (native land).

Getting back to your question, we like the new informal use of “expat” for someone living in a different part of his own country.

It’s similar to the extended use of the newspaper term “column” for a website “column,” a subject we’ve discussed on our blog.

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