Old words, new words, EU words: Brexit and the OED

Old words, new words, EU words: Brexit and the OED

The noun Brexit entered the Oxford English Dictionary in December 2016. It was then still a very recent word by the standards of a historical dictionary, coined in just 2012, but such was its impact we considered it a necessary addition.

That was just one word among many associated with the referendum, however, and the language used to discuss and describe Brexit has developed in a variety of ways; new words have appeared, existing words have developed new senses, and formerly obscure terms have moved from the lexicon of political wonkery to that of everyday conversation. Though a great deal of the discussion on Brexit’s linguistic influence relates to the new words – and we’ll come to those later – many of the relevant terms are already covered by the OED, along with much of the historical background.

Our entry for the adjective European shows just how long people have been thinking about an association of countries on the continent. We see from sense 5a that as far back as 1714, Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre’s Project for Everlasting Peace in Europe (in translation) suggested: ‘If the eighteen Principal Sovereignties of Europe..would make a Treaty of Union, and a perpetual Congress.., and form an European Union.., the weakest would have a sufficient Security, that the great Power of the strongest could not hurt them.’ The quotations also show nineteenth and early twentieth century authors writing of a notional European federation, confederation, or union.

Sense 5b details the use of European in the names of the various forms of union seen since 1952, when the European Coal and Steel Community came into being to regulate pricing, transport, and tariffs for the coal and steel industries of member countries. The definition and quotation paragraph show how things changed over the decades, from that six-country, industry-focused organization, through the European Economic Community, to the European Union (EU), established when the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, by which point the definition tells us we see ‘complete internal free trade and common external tariffs, and..inter-governmental arrangements: on common foreign and security policy and on enhanced cooperation on interior policy, legal, and immigration issues.’

The European Union is mentioned directly in 79 different definitions in OED. Some are obvious (it would be tricky to discuss the Euro as a unit of currency without mentioning the EU somewhere); some less so (the rhubarb triangle is an area of West Yorkshire noted for the forced rhubarb grown there; a note points out that this has been granted Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Union). Important EU-related terminology is covered at entries such as acquis communautaire (the body of accumulated legislation and regulations of the European Union) and single market (a free trade association allowing for increasing alignment of fiscal policy and unrestricted movement of goods, capital, etc., between the member states of the European Union).

Much of the entry for Euro- used as a combining form is devoted to words related to the EU, such as Euro-federalism, Eurosummit, and Eurospeak. A number of subentries here also show a difficulty inherent in its modern-day use: Europhobia and Europhilia, for example, each have two distinct senses, distinguishing between dislike or admiration for Europe and its culture, or for the EU as a political entity. This reflects a wider linguistic issue clear during the referendum, and still: as the OED’s entry shows, Europe is used allusively to refer to the European Union, meaning that a person can honestly (if confusingly) claim to love Europe and yet dislike Europe in equal measure.

The OED is also well-positioned to clarify much of the political and economic terminology that is not specific to the EU but has become part of our everyday conversation. For example, we can see that the free trade agreement dates back to 1877; the term free trade, with specific reference to ‘trade or commerce conducted without the interference of customs duties designed to restrict imports or subsidies to encourage local production’, dates to 1766 (in a quotation referring to trade between Great Britain and America as the revolution stirred). The customs union – a group of (usually neighbouring) countries imposing a common rate of customs duties on imports from other countries and (typically) allowing free trade between themselves – was first mentioned in 1834, in the context of Switzerland’s declaration that it would ‘under no circumstances..join either the French line of customs or the Prussian customs-union’. Other topical and illuminating entries include Good Friday agreement, prorogue, and, of course, referendum.

Returning our focus to Brexit, there are a number of familiar terms and phrases that have been given new life by politicians and commentators, and are explored in OED. Red line originally referred to the British army (from 1855, chiefly as the thin red line), in allusion to the soldiers’ red coats, implying bravery or sturdy resistance against heavy odds; only since 1970 has it been used to mean ‘A boundary or limit that will not or should not be crossed; a notional line or point beyond which specified actions will not be tolerated, or concessions will not be made’. (This sense is in preparation for publication later this year.) Our (unrevised) entry for cake shows the phrase you can’t eat your cake and have it, illustrated by this 1709 quotation from Lord Shaftesbury: ‘As ridiculous as the way of Children, who first eat their Cake, and then cry for it… They shou’d be told, as Children, that They can’t eat their Cake, and have it.’ This phrase has been much used recently, by those holding the view that certain people were expecting more than should be considered possible in the Brexit negotiations (a policy described by some as ‘cakeism’). It’s interesting that in recent years the phrase is typically switched: ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it (too)’ is now vastly more common, though less logical.

On a related note, the colloquial use of cherry-picking, meaning ‘the action or process of selecting only the best or the most profitable items, opportunities, etc.’, only dates from 1965, and a first example in the New York Times Book Review. To kick the can down the road is yet another colloquialism that has become more and more familiar in the last couple of years; this, again, first appears in the United States, this time in 1983, and is defined as ‘to delay dealing with a difficult situation’. (Our first use has ‘street’ instead of ‘road’ and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a political context.)

Other familiar terms have been given a twist by their use in the talk around Brexit. Cliff edge is lemmatized in OED, but only in the literal sense, not the currently popular figurative sense of ‘sudden and irretrievable economic and political downturn’. Our first quotation is from 1809, and describes a man falling from a real cliff edge, at Brighton, after the collapse of a railing he was leaning against. (The story, in the Morning Post, goes on to say: ‘Persons who witnessed the accident..expected to find him dead, but experienced a joyful reverse in beholding him arise and walk from the spot with little apparent inconvenience.., although his fall considerably exceeded one hundred feet.’)

Remainer and leaver both have entries in OED, of course (remainer has two, in fact; the earliest is an obsolete version of the word ‘remainder’). But OED’s entries cover the senses familiar before the referendum was called: a person who remains or stays, or a person who leaves something, someone, or some place. In the Brexit-specific use, remainers and leavers haven’t actually stayed or gone from anywhere, and individually at least, none of them will. The words refer to their votes for the UK to remain in or leave the EU; a difference that will require extra work from lexicographers if these senses are to be covered in the future.

Whether they will be or not depends on their claims to longevity. The OED is a historical dictionary, and before any new entry is added our assessors look at the evidence for it: how often has it been used in books, in newspapers, on Twitter, and so on, and (most importantly in this case) how long has it been around? We want to make sure that anything added has gained a foothold in English and won’t soon disappear, leaving people in ten years’ time wondering why on earth we bothered. Just after the referendum, when we added Brexit, it would have been understandable to suspect that we might be able to ignore most of the other terms associated with the referendum; after all, it was over, and surely their use would now dwindle. But in 2019 Brexit language is still on the front pages every day, so these things are certainly still on our lexicographical radar, all with strengthening claims for inclusion in the future.

The same can be said for the various terms that, were they to be added, would be new words as far as the OED is concerned; though some have longer histories than you might think. Many are obviously very recent coinages, following on from the portmanteau example of Brexit: Brexiteer, Brexit as a verb, Bregret, Brexodus, etc. The use of the word ‘exit’ as the second element in blended words (originally in Grexit) has not gone away; at first used to refer to the potential withdrawal of various other countries from the eurozone or the EU – Frexit, Itexit, Dexit, etc. – it has also moved beyond this, forming words such as ‘Clexit’ (with reference to the withdrawal of countries from climate change agreements) and ‘Trexit’ (used in various senses connected to Donald Trump, especially in relation to the ways he might leave or be removed from the White House).

But while these are certainly being monitored by us, their longevity is not yet beyond doubt, and we can’t be sure yet that ‘-exit’ will go the same way as the combining form ‘gate’and remain a go-to political word-maker. There are some words and phrases, though, which have a more immediate claim to inclusion. At least as far back as 1921, ‘a people’s vote’ was used as a synonym for ‘a referendum’. The article in which this appears, in the Spectator, also uses the phrase ‘a Poll of the People’; perhaps an option in the UK if a euphemism for ‘third referendum’ is ever needed.

On that subject, and at first glance seeming to capture the mood of many on both sides of the debate, the word ‘neverendum’ also has a long history. It is typically used to denote, with distinct weariness, referendums that are repeated (or are proposed to be), rather than individual campaigns that are viewed as protracted; we see clusters of use connected with Quebec’s referendum on independence from Canada in 1995; Ireland’s on the Lisbon Treaty in 2009; Scotland’s in 2014 on independence from the UK; and most recently in relation to calls for a second Brexit referendum.  

Early evidence for the term can be found in 1910, with this comment in The Evening Telegraph and Post in Dundee: ‘According to a certain school of thought, there must now be another election almost immediately. Will the country take kindly to this Neverendum device?’ Though not strictly referring to a referendum, this observation on the constitutional crisis of 1910, when two UK general elections were held in the same year, reminds us of two things. First, that the United Kingdom is no stranger to political difficulties. Second, that the English language can keep up with them, as existing words evolve and new words are formed to describe every twist and turn of the process. The OED will, as ever, continue to monitor all such linguistic developments, and only time will tell if new words like ‘Brino’, ‘maxfac’, ‘remainiac’, and ‘flextension’ will stay or go, and if new senses of back-stop, gammon, and unicorn will endure as lasting testaments to Brexit’s impact on the words we use.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.