Are These English Things Really English?

Bulldogs, muffins and more to explore.
English things represented by an English bulldog.

Names can be pretty misleading. You might see an animal called a “red panda” and assume it’s related to the panda bear, for example, but really they’re not related at all. When a country comes into play, that makes it all the trickier. While you might assume that things get named after the person or culture that invented it, that’s not necessarily always the case (just look at Belgium and France’s ongoing arguments over the French fry). While names can be accurate, they can also be ways to stake a claim on something whether it’s accurate or not. To test their veracity, we decided to look into a few “English” things to determine how English they actually are.

English Breakfast

The definition of a “full English breakfast” varies a little from place to place. The most common elements are fried eggs, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, baked beans, tomatoes and hash browns. Each of these could warrant their own history and ranking of Englishness — black pudding is a type of sausage specific to the United Kingdom, while tomatoes as a crop originally come from the Americas — but for the purposes of this meal we can take them together. In that case, this type of meal became very popular in England in the 19th century, and it’s been pretty consistently English ever since (though Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have their own variations on this theme). All in all, you can say that eating baked beans for breakfast is a pretty English idea.

Verdict: Pretty English

A full English breakfast accompanied by a coffee and a few other nondescript breakfast items.

English Breakfast Tea

England and the other parts of the British Isles became massive consumers of tea in the 19th century. It’s not at all native to England, however, and the tea trade was one of the most seismic global events of the century. If you look at the blend of teas that most often make up English breakfast tea, you get a pretty global product: the black teas come from India, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Even with that global perspective, there’s another fact that makes English breakfast tea a little less English: it was first advertised in New York City. Yes, it was pioneered by an English immigrant named Richard Davies, and while it’s very popular in England (and other countries) today, it did not get its origins there.

Verdict: English…ish?

English Muffin

Tracing the history of a specific food can be difficult. While archivists are able to pore through old cookbooks to find early instances of various foodstuffs, but even then there are questions as to what counts as innovation. Is the first English muffin the first muffin of any kind? Or the first thing that resembles a modern English muffin? Or, to look purely at language, the first thing to be called an “English muffin”? To keep things simple, we’ll consider this bread first baked in the 1870s, when an English immigrant in New York named Samuel Bath Thomas started selling what he called a “toaster crumpet.” The name changed to English muffins by the end of the 19th century, and Thomas’ last name is still closely associated with them today. So while the inventor of this muffin is English, it was invented in the United States. We’ll give it a pass for good marketing.

Verdict: Technically English

English Opening

The game of chess is over a millennium and a half old, and its staying power is in part due to its complexity. Looking at openings alone — a set of moves used at the start of a game — the Oxford Companion to Chess offers over 1,300 with specific names. The English opening is just one of many. It’s named for mid-19th century chess player, Howard Staunton, who used it in a couple matches. It only became “popular” later on, though, with some chess databases saying it’s the fourth-most popular move for the white side to begin with.

Verdict: English

English Bulldog (And Other Dogs)

For the most part, dogs with a country designation in their name do indeed come from breeders in that country. The English bulldog, English cocker spaniel, English setter, English pointer and English springer spaniel all rightfully earned their names from their homeland. If you wanted to get more into the weeds of nomenclature, you could look at the history of breeding and how it’s decided when a dog is different enough to earn its own new name. But to keep things simple, we can say that the dogs are English.

Verdict: A very good boy. We mean, uh, English

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