Saturday 26 May 2018

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

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

Niamh Gallagher

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.

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.

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