I’ve taught English for more than two decades and most of that time I’ve taught English as a foreign language in Italy. I return to the UK several times a year and every time I do, I feel I’m topping up. There are new words and phrases that I need to absorb, changing usage, fluctuating register, frequently arriving from the USA or more precisely HBO. The speed with which an expression will move from television to common parlance can be dizzying. The phrase ‘back in the day’ went from Stringer Bell to Macclesfield; a high court judge told a defendant to ‘man up’. My students baffled and confounded would resort to urban dictionary when more traditional dictionaries came up short. And of course social media burst onto the scene with an alphabet soup of acronyms from ACAB to FOMO and beyond. It could leave me SMH.
A mongrel language itself, English has always devoured novelty and spat out new ways of saying things. One of our proudest boasts regarding William Shakespeare is that he himself invented thousands of new words – ‘addiction’, ‘eyeball’ and ‘uncomfortable’ are all credited as Shakespearean invention. Many of these were likely in use and some were simply shifted from word class into another: the bard bunged a Y on the end of ‘gloom’ and voilà a new word. And we do this all the time. Think how you can add the suffix ‘ish’ to anything and make it into an adjective. In the US sitcom Community, one character learns that her name has become a verb meaning to muck things up: ‘oh, I Britta-ed it.’
Other languages change and generate new vocabulary, but for many of them that new language is the importation of jiggled English words. As the global lingua franca English is the apex predator with some countries – perhaps most famously France – going to great lengths to try and preserve their own integrity against the invasive English moss. In Italian, the use of English words took off in the 90s with Silvio Berlusconi and the Milanese business class peppering speeches and meetings with so many English words that Italy’s ‘brand’ – a borrowed English word – was officially ‘Made in Italy’. English was modern, go-getting, tech-savvy and international. It was also proof of a centrality and a significant advantage the UK had in Europe. We were native speakers in the one language that could lay claim to be genuinely pan-European. But we are in the process of throwing it away because of a new word: Brexit.
The word ‘Brexit’ was coined in May, 2012 by Peter Wilding:
“Unless a clear view is pushed that Britain must lead in Europe at the very least to achieve the completion of the single market then the portmanteau for Greek euro exit might be followed by another sad word, Brexit.”
As with ‘Tory’ and ‘Suffragette’, the word became the latest entry in our political vocabulary to end up definitively labelling what its author had intended to decry. As Wilding notes his new ‘sad word’ is derived – like ‘democracy’ and ‘Christ!’ – from Greek origins. Citigroup economist Ebrahim Rahbari coined the word in February of 2012 not to describe Greece winning back its sovereignty but rather a calamitous exit from the European Union. It was used in the same breath with the rather more unwieldy ‘graccident’.
But neologisms have a life of their own, beyond any authorial intention. On BBC radio’s Third Programme broadcast on 28 March 1949, astronomer Fred Hoyle decided to lampoon a new theory about the origin of the universe. He believed in a Steady State model and saw no need for some cartoonish ‘Big Bang’. And so was popularized the very theory he wished to undermine – and incidentally and infinitely unfunny sitcom.
And so it is with the infinitely unfunny sitcom of Brexit. The word had everything. Novel, instantly understandable, groovy: it tripped off the tongue and made for headlines and soundbites. It even sounded like a bite. It also managed to be decisive and gloriously unspecific, meaningful without being explanatory – allowing for any number of interpretations while British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on tautology as definition: ‘Brexit means Brexit’. More importantly there was no Remain equivalent. ‘Remain’ itself was not a great word. Remains are ruins; doubts and stubborn stains remain; the song ‘remains’ the same.
Crude linguistic determinism should be avoided. But with the margins relatively thin in the referendum, the psychological impact of the language used over and over again can’t be underestimated. The Benedict Cumberbatch Brexit movie – An Uncivil War – makes much of the coining of the phrase ‘Take Back Control’, but the word Brexit – and the absence of a sexy Remain equivalent – had already done the heavy lifting. Even in the mouths of its opponents – like ‘binge drinking’ – it sounded better and better. How can Malthouse Compromise or People’s Vote hope to compete? Is it too far-fetched to argue that not only does Brexit mean Brexit, Brexit also made Brexit?