Monday 21 October 2019

Louise Kelly: 'Backstop revival intrigues wordsmiths - but current meaning is a long way away from game-playing'

Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in Brussels
Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in Brussels
Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

It's been just over two years since we learned, with no small amount of shock, that UK voters had opted to quit the EU.

Now it is almost difficult to imagine a time before Brexit was an issue.

One of the terms most-associated with Brexit - in Ireland at least - reflects a conflicting sentiment of "preparing for the worst and hoping for the best". This word has become so relevant that Collins Dictionary experts have included it in their latest notable word review.

The word? Backstop.

The failure to agree a "backstop" mechanism on Northern Ireland's land border with the European Union has thwarted hopes of a Brexit deal thus far.

Under the Good Friday agreement in 1998 between Britain and Ireland, controls ended along the 500-km (300-mile) land border and all-Ireland rules and institutions were set up that make Northern Ireland special within the United Kingdom.

Both sides in Brexit negotiations have been looking to avoid a hard border, bringing with it new physical checks and different trade rules that could inflame old tensions.

Read more: Explainer: What is the 'backstop' and why does it remain a major sticking point in Brexit talks?

So our government, backed by the rest of the EU, has been trying to reach an agreement with Britain for an insurance policy - a "backstop" - in case future trade talks fail.

Historically, 'backstop' would mostly have been used in sport, such as baseball, as the barrier or support at the rear of play. And while the debate to establish an agreement has often felt (and looked) like a tennis match, it's hard to see who will win when the game is over.

The annual list of the new and notable from the wordsmiths has also named "single-use" as the official Word Of The Year.

Referring to products, often plastic, which are made to be used only once before they are thrown away, the mentions of the word "single-use" have quadrupled in the last five years.

Helen Newstead, head of language content at Collins, said "it's clear from this year's Words Of The Year list that changes to our language are dictated as much by public concern as they are by sport, politics, and playground fads".

"Gammon", used as an insult to describe middle-aged, white, pro-Brexit supporters, is also included as is "Gaslight", a description for the manipulation of others, often romantic partners and "MeToo", which lexicographers maintain has become part of the language.

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