Decoding the linguistic jiggery-pockery of Brexit

It has been two and a half years since the United Kingdom’s referendum on EU membership. While this decision has dominated the political landscape ever since, less attention has been paid to the linguistic innovations, reincarnations and clichés this event has had on and within the English language. Given that the wider Brexit debate has been hijacked by a failed Tory leadership candidate, whose choice in language has been met with disdain by even his allies, and a bizarre anachronism from North East Somerset, a linguistic decoding of some of the key terminology is long overdue.

This portmanteau of Britain and exit first appeared in 2012, most likely inspired by Grexit, the possibility of Greece leaving the eurozone, which was coined earlier that very same year. What is less discussed, however, is that this term is actually a misnomer. Britain (the island) is not leaving the European Union; rather, it is the United Kingdom (the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) that is, along with Gibraltar. An interesting translation of Brexit is that of the Irish language. As Darrach Ó Séaghdha outlined in his podcast on the Irish language, Motherfoclóir, translation provides an opportunity for correction; Breatimeacht [Breatain (Britain) + imeacht (leaving)] is a calque of ‘Brexit’, but there is also a concurrent alternative: Sasamach [Sasana (England) + amach (out)] which has proven to be a popular in some circles. While UKexit is without doubt less catchy, this choice of wording reflects Northern Ireland’s subjugated position within the debate. Furthermore, it betrays the contradictory position on the part of the government, which systematically ignores the very real and present concerns that one of its constituent parts is having, while extolling the virtues of the union. Those with the most to lose from Brexit are not only politically side-lined, but linguistically too.

brexit-3575384_1920.jpgThe Irish problem/issue/question
It seems practically impossible to listen to a debate about Brexit without hearing one of the locutions outlined above. This yet again portrays a rather distorted view of the facts at hand; Ireland does not have a problem with the European Union. In fact, recent surveys have found that the Republic of Ireland is one of the EU’s most enthusiastic members, while its Northern counterpart voted by 56% to remain. The concept of Ireland having a problem, issue and/or question has a long lineage, dating back to the time of the 1800 Act of Union that united Ireland and Great Britain into the United Kingdom and continued to be in vogue throughout the Home Rule Crisis (1912-1914) until the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland in 1921. What these examples demonstrate is that the Irish problem/issue/question is really a euphemism for Britain’s (or, arguably, England’s) problem in Ireland, whereby its will is imposed to solve problems that it itself had created.

The ‘frictionless’ border
We have been told that no party wishes to impose a hard border in the island of Ireland, with promises of technological advances that have yet to come into existence and of a perpetual ‘frictionless border’ – as though Theresa May is going to lubricate the motorway between Newry and Dundalk, so that we can slide with ease between one jurisdiction and the other. Rhetorically sound but semantically void, this soundbite provides assurance to nobody.

Another referendum is un- or anti-democratic
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, democracy is “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves”. In 2016, the public voted to leave, the negotiations began, and we now have a better picture of what Brexit would look like. Another referendum, the political equivalent of an ‘are you sure?’, can hardly be considered un- or anti-democratic in this context, given that we can now make a considerably more informed decision. The fact is that we did not know what Brexit would look like, other than it being the act of ‘leaving the European Union’. This is not a condescending remark, but a summation of the facts; we were told to leave without being told where to go. What is more, since the referendum the Brexit cabal have jumped ship, abdicated their responsibility and carped from the side-lines. During a General Election, we do not vote for an eternal Prime Minister whose life-long mandate is secured by a one-off election – why should a decision as consequential as Brexit be any different?

Edited by Maja Petek.

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