Saturday 22 October 2016

What's in a word? 'Brexit' shows power of a pithy slogan

Niamh Gallagher

Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30

Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

What do breakfast and lunch, John and Edward, and smoke and fog all have in common with the upcoming British referendum? They can be portmanteaus, of course. And what is that, you might politely ask. Well, a suitcase. Right. But no ordinary suitcase, rather one that opens into two equal sections, and has - by virtue of that unique feature - lent its name to a phenomenon: that of creating a linguistic blend by combining two words, and their meanings, to make a new word - brunch, Jedward, smog and Brexit. Now you're with me.

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What impact has this humble clothing carrier had on the forthcoming British referendum on UK membership? Quite a bit, I suspect. First, we are all talking about Brexit; we are not talking about Bremain. If we know anything about the use of language in political campaigns, it is that defining the terms is key to winning hearts and minds. By coining 'Brexit' (rather than 'Breave', which simply sounds like 'breathe' in a particular kind of British accent) the leave side were already onto a winner. Brexit has so much more punch than Bremain, which sounds like an unusual surname or a brand of medicine. So it's not surprising that Bremain hasn't really got off the ground. And what alternatives were there? 'Bray' for stay is about it; cue jokes about donkeys from opponents. No good.

So Brexit it is, and so successful is it that the 'remain' side are actually talking about whether people should vote yes or no to Brexit. This is a victory for leave because already, by talking about Brexit, we are - subconsciously - prepared for a British exit. Forget the bookies, who have odds on remain taking it on the day, and the pollsters, who are calling it closer but are on shaky ground after their failure to come even close to predicting the Conservative majority last year; the non-exit of the UK from the EU will be a surprise, simply because in our minds we are associating what is going on with an exit.

It is not the first time that words have changed an outcome, or captured the way we feel to steer us towards a particular political view or position. Think about the 'bedroom tax', introduced by Iain Duncan Smith as Welfare Minister in the UK and formally known as the under-occupancy penalty. Never heard of the latter, but we certainly remember that evil chap who wanted to cut benefits to those living in council houses with a spare room. In fact, polling done before the measure was introduced showed that more of the public supported than opposed this idea, but once the reality was communicated as the 'bedroom tax', opinion changed, and half were opposed. The bedroom tax just sounds mean, so we don't like it.

The same applies with 'death tax', a genius coining of a phrase by the US Republicans, who want to see low inheritance and estate taxes (the correct terms) for their wealthy supporters. Frank Luntz, a US pollster, author of 'Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear' and one-time adviser to Fianna Fáil, is credited with revealing - through polling - that the term 'death tax' sparked voter resentment in a way that the official terms couldn't. An inheritance tax is generally seen as a fair way to redistribute wealth, but a death tax is another story: cruel, insensitive and money-grabbing. Add to that the press conferences hosted by the Republicans at mortuaries for dramatic effect, and 'death tax' became accepted lexicon, and a tax to which most are opposed.

And, of course, there is perhaps the most successful capture of words in political terms: pro-life. In the recent Seanad election campaign, I spoke to a candidate who argued passionately that she was both pro-life and pro-choice. By taking this position she challenged the monopoly that those who are anti-abortion claim to have on 'life'. She was, she explained, very much in favour of life - who isn't? - of children and of family, but she also respected and would fight for a woman's right to choose. These positions are not incompatible, but it would suit some on one side of the debate to suggest that they are.

So back to Brexit, and what's in a word. The arguments are getting more heated by the day. The figures are being batted back and forth between the two sides, with ferocious disagreement about what is accurate and true. Cliched, populist arguments about overbearing EU directives are wheeled out by the leave side, while they promise that a vote to leave means that everything will change and yet remain the same.

Meanwhile, the blander 'Bremain' (what isn't bland when put beside Boris Johnson) is sticking to its guns with an 'it's the economy, stupid' approach, citing treasury studies that show a reduction in annual household income with a vote to leave. It is hard to believe that there is still almost a month to go until polling day. Maintaining campaign momentum for this long will be a challenge. The outcome is still unclear, but the winner in capturing minds in a word is obvious: Brexit.

Irish Independent

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