Brexit: coining a noun to help a campaign

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According to Prime Minister Theresa May, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But what does ‘Brexit’ mean? Or, more properly, how did coining the new word ‘Brexit’ help the ‘leave’ campaign?

The questions in the EU referendum were posed around verbs: Do you want the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union? and Do you want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union? On the face of it, a ‘pro’ vote was in favour of the EU and an ‘anti’ vote was against the EU.

Long before the referendum day, though, leaving the EU had acquired a noun: ‘Brexit’.  This was not only snappy and memorable, it changed the terms of the debate. Before, anyone who wished to leave the EU would be described as ‘anti the EU’. Now they could describe themselves as ‘pro Brexit’ instead. There was no equivalent term for the ‘remain’ side, so people who supported Britain’s membership of the EU became ‘anti Brexit’. The original terms of the referendum – ‘pro’ means staying in, ‘anti’ means leaving – had been reversed.

The word ‘Brexit’ is a noun. Sometimes we are told that a noun is the name of a thing. As a definition, this does not work well: ‘table’ and ‘tree’ are certainly recognisable as things, but ‘authority’ and ‘kindness’ are less so. Many words which are nouns are also verbs – they describe both a ‘doing’ and a ‘being’ e.g. ‘work’, ‘dream’, ‘talk’ etc. There is an element of truth in the old definition, though. Using a noun for an action transforms that action into a thing, into a tangible entity. Running is an action, but ‘a run’ is something that can be measured and that can form part of something else, such as a fitness regime. It is an entity that can cause emotion (‘an exhilarating run’) or be the subject of judgement (‘an easy run’).

So the noun ‘Brexit’ made the concept of leaving the EU more solid. It was an entity that could be aimed at, a thing that could conceivably be achieved. The ‘remain’ side of the debate had no equivalent noun, so no equivalent target. While the ‘remain’ side argued that leaving the EU would take the country into a hopelessly uncertain future, ‘Brexit’ made leaving sound manageable.

They say the devil has the best tunes. In this case, they had the best word.

A technical note:

‘Brexit’, like ‘motel’ and ‘smog’, is a blend: two words combined to form a new word.

What about its grammar? We know it is a noun because it can be used as the subject of a verb: ‘Brexit means leaving the EU’, and as the object of a preposition: ‘He argued for Brexit’. But what kind of noun is it?

Nouns are classified based on whether or not they have a plural form and what kind of determiners they are used with. Countable nouns are used with ‘a’ (or ‘an’) and they have a plural, however it is marked. Examples are: a table / tables; a child / children; a sheep (is) / sheep (are). Uncountable nouns are not used with ‘a’ and have no plural. They are used with ‘some’. Examples are: progress/ some progress, but not *a progress or *progresses. To date, as far as I know, ‘Brexit’ is not used with any determiners: *a Brexit, *the Brexit and *some Brexit all sound wrong. But it is starting to be used with numbers: ‘There isn’t only one Brexit’. At the moment it seems to be a proper noun, used like ‘Betty’ or ‘France’ (*a France, *some France, there isn’t only one France). The word hasn’t necessarily settled down yet, though, and it could change.

3 thoughts on “Brexit: coining a noun to help a campaign”

  1. So both the phonological snappiness of Brexit and the reification achieved by it being a noun helped the Leave campaign. But there may be a third factor. With Brexit being a noun, you could be for it, say yes to it. Conversation Analysis has shown that declining offers, requests, invitations etc. is a dispreferred action, while accepting, granting them (i.e. saying yes to them) are much preferred actions. The Brexit campaign thus had the additional advantage of letting voters follow a basic interactional instinct: perform a preferred action.
    Too bad the Remain campaign didn’t have better linguistic advisers! It might have changed the outcome of the vote.

  2. Theresa May’s constant repetition of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is interesting too. Initially, i.e., just after the referendum, it may have had a shared meaning along the lines of ‘the vote for Brexit means that we will have to implement the Brexit’. As time passes by and the phrase gets repeated over and over again these implied meanings will get bleached out and the phrase will just be a perfect example of a flouting of the Gricean Manner of Quantity (‘be informative’), inviting all sorts of implicatures varying from hearer to hearer. In the long run ‘Brexit means Brexit’ may indeed end up meaning anything from ‘Brexit means a (tiny) little Brexit’ to ‘Brexit means Bremain’ – which wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

    1. I agree. And, oddly, ‘brexit’ seems to be used by others to mean ‘the referendum outcome’i.e. ‘the vote to leave the EU’ rather than ‘leaving the EU’ – we encounter things like ‘post-brexit’ to describe where we are now, for example.

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