Since the neologism ‘Brexit’ was first coined in 2012, it has gained a lot of cultural currency rapidly. So fast, in fact, that in 2016, when Brexit was added to the dictionary, the OED called its rise to prominence “impressive”.
Brexit is not confined to European and UK newspapers. Use of the term has been recorded in foreign-language news publications across the world. It seems the lexeme is on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
With that in mind, in this post we’ll take a look at some of the linguistic aspects of Brexit.
“Brexit means Brexit” - Theresa May
Despite UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s somewhat ambiguous statement that “Brexit means Brexit”, the word does have a deeper meaning.
Economists first started using the term to denote a British exit from the European Union.
Britain or British + Exit from the EU = Brexit
They modelled the portmanteau after 2010’s Grexit:
Greece or Greek + Exit from the Eurozone monetary unit = Grexit
The OED’s definition of Brexit is a little fuller than the above. For the lexicographers, Brexit means:
“The (proposed) withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the political process associated with it.”
The extended definition continues:
“Sometimes used specifically with reference to the referendum held in the UK on 23rd June 2016, in which a majority of voters favoured withdrawal from the EU.”
The OED also notes that the more accurate ‘UKexit’ didn’t hold much sway with language users. Nor did ‘Brixit’.
Although Brexit started life as a noun, it is increasingly being used as a verb, as the OED’s extended definition of Brexit as a process would suggest. (Note though, at the moment the OED defines it solely as a proper noun).
Let’s have a look at how it functions in each word class.
Noun - “The report warned that Brexit would reduce the EU's potential GDP”
Verb - “The UK will Brexit in 2020”
Third-person simple present - Brexits
Present participle - Brexiting
Past and simple past participle - Brexited
Adjective - “The Brexit referendum”
There aren’t a lot of instances of adverbial use; can something be carried out Brexitly? But given how active the Brexit lexeme is, this may change. Perhaps it will come to mean doing something begrudgingly, or with “Bregret”!
Productivity: The Brexicon (Brexit + Lexicon)
Brexit as a lexeme has spurned a lot of other new words, many of these are used frequently, including:
Bremain - Britain + Remain, a antonym of Brexit. And by extension, Bremainer.
Brexiter - A Brexit supporter. Linguist Graeme Davis also makes a distinction between Brexiter and Breixteer.
Bregret (or Regrexit) - Regret over the leave vote.
Lesser items in the Brexicon include:
Brexchosis - Double portmanteau coined by Boris Johnson.
Brexiety - A state of anxiety over Brexit.
Brespoke - A bespoke exit deal.
Brexodus - The exodus or departure of both EU and UK citizens from the UK following the vote.
Brexthrough - A breakthrough in exit talks.
UK newspaper The Independent has put forward a more complete, and oftentimes hilarious, list here.
Who’s In and Who’s Out
Brexit has been polarising, to say the least with Brexiters and remainers taking a firm stance on either side of the issue.
The Brexit vote, and the accompanying clamour of voices focuses attention on language and the discursive construction of patriotism, that is how we linguistically construct our allegiance to a given community. In this case, in or out.
The leave campaign's simple slogan “take back control” might be jingoistic and misleading (political slogans often are) but it proved to be effective. In contrast, the remain campaign never really coined a powerful slogan, “Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe” just didn’t have the teeth, or the spin possibilities, that camp leave’s slogan had.
Vote leave relied on emotion, the use of “control” here implied that the UK was/is out of control as part of the EU. Associations of foreign bureaucrats as puppeteers “controlling” the UK rose among the public. As too did anti-immigration sentiment.
Enough has been said about the rise of populist politics and rhetoric recently that we won’t add to the discussion here except to note that language is a powerful tool indeed when wielded for a specific means.
“Hello, I am from Britain, you know, the one that got tricked by a bus” - Aher Shah
Post-vote, people on both sides of the debate signal their preferences through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These micro-blogging platforms provide an outlet for people to express their community, be it in, out, or apathetic.
Jokes have been aplenty. As too have the memes. An oft-seen signifier on the remain side is the EU’s circle of stars on a blue background. Some remainers favour a Union Jack as cover images or profile pictures.
Outside the digital realm, people have been spotted wearing their preference with t-shirts emblazoned with text such as “All I want for Christmas is EU” and “Brexit people scare me”.
Linguists and sociolinguists alike have been weighing in too with what seems like a whole field of study springing up around the issue. If you’re interested, this lecture from Veronika Koller at Lancaster University on Brexit discourse is a good start.
We’re sure the academic debate is going to continue for a while yet. After all, Brexit is the kind of event that gives discourse analysts a lot of work to do!
Have you noticed any interesting uses of language to do with Brexit? If so, let us know in the comments below.