Release notes: Lexicographical Brexit: in the OED

By Craig Leyland, Senior Editor of the OED

The world of politics is a fruitful area for new words, as linguistic innovation is pressed to keep up with regular changes in society, policy, and personnel. In the OED’s last update, September, we added Westminster bubble, slacktivism, and more, and we can be sure that political words and phrases like these will keep coming.

The best – those that make a lasting impression on our language, and in the pages of the OED – fill a gap in our collective vocabulary. As the old saying almost goes, necessity is the mother of lexical invention; and political language is no exception. ‘Oh, if only we had a word to describe Elbridge Gerry’s efforts to rearrange electoral district boundaries to his advantage,’ someone might have said in 1812 Massachusetts. BAM! Gerrymandering. Still in use over 200 years later.

Similarly, two economists writing a paper early in 2012 decided that having to write ‘the (potential) withdrawal of Greece from the Eurozone monetary union’ more than once would be something of a chore. What to do? Come up with a snappy single-word replacement by blending Greek and exit: Grexit. Then watch as it’s overtaken by a relation spawned just three months later, by a writer trying to avoid repeating ‘the (proposed) withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the political process associated with it’.

And so the word Brexit was with us by May 2012. Within a few years it would be used by everyone from the Prime Minister down as the name for the largest political event in the United Kingdom’s recent history. (Presumably the more accurate UKexit didn’t appeal; we can see that Brixit was attempted, but lacked staying power.)

Widespread Brexit

Brexit’s inclusion in the OED December update within five years of being coined is highly unusual. The speed with which it became widely used and recognized was impressive, fuelled by the fact it filled an empty space in our language, and the growing importance of the phenomenon it described. Foreign language newspapers used it on their front pages to report on the referendum, knowing that readers in Italian, French, and Polish would understand. By late 2016 it was a global word.

And not only did it spread, it reproduced. Just as Brexit itself had developed from Grexit, other words began to appear: Brexiteer, Brexiter, Brexit as a verb. Different forms of Brexit became key to the issue, with the addition of hard and soft creating new standalone terms. The word became a linguistic wellspring, pouring out new items at speed, even if some – Bregret, Bremorse, Brexodus – seemed to be trying too hard, and none has yet shown sufficient durability to enter the OED.

Developing Brexit

From a lexicographical point of view, the interesting thing about adding Brexit to the OED now is that it’s still evolving. We’re caught up in its history, as we can see by considering another relation: post-Brexit. This can be used to refer to the period immediately after the referendum (post-Brexit gloom/celebrations); the current period (post-Brexit financial markets); and the post-departure future (post-Brexit freedom of movement).

So as the politicians continue to figure out the big picture, we’ll be watching with interest to see what happens linguistically. And spare a thought for us lexicographers, having to decide what Brexit means before anybody else. But perhaps it should have been easy; after all, Brexit means Brexit.