What's a Brit? "I'm pretty sure the Brits were supposed to win," said an American man in South Africa, stars and stripes draped across his shoulders, talking after the soul-sapping World Cup game against the US. And then a Times headline: "Brits storm Broadway in the Tonys".

Are Brits only Brits when abroad? I suppose that's the question. And "Brits abroad" is a whole other story, one involving reddened skin, public puking and international unpopularity. It's as though as soon as we cross water we become amorphous (never mind, for instance, that it was the England team playing). In the Times story, the storming Brits are like an army - one we never knew existed, that on foreign shores suddenly coalesces and champions our shaky sense of patriotism. But this is definitely not the place to investigate the finer points of national unity and the politics of devolution.

One thing both examples above have in common is the presence of our co-dependents in the special relationship (one that should surely be entered for marriage counselling). Do we become Brits specifically in relation to Americans? “Brit-bashing" was the delicate term used to describe one aspect of President Obama's handling of the BP crisis.

The word itself is an abbreviation of the old-fashioned "Briton". But try inserting Briton in the headline: "Britons storm Broadway" conjures images of an ancient force, brandishing spears at bewildered New Yorkers as it rampages through Manhattan. (We used to say "Britishers" apparently - there's a brilliantly stiff-upper-lip First World War poster with the slogan: "Britishers. You're needed".)

Brit, then, is like Briton's hip kid brother, a status confirmed by its main usage on domestic soil, at the Brits, the annual music awards. The logo says it all, really - a corporate attempt at graffiti, screaming "youth" and "trendy" as decreed by the boardroom.

The Brits started life as the "British Record Industry Awards", making Brits a sort of abortive acronym. As if we needed any more confusion about who or what we are . . .

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas