In December 2016, the word Brexit was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, only a few months after the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). In the same year, Collins dictionary named Brexit word of the year, beating ‘Trumpism’ to the award. Brexit has also spawned its own lexicon, with some arguing that approximately 5,000 expressions have arisen or been adopted to explain some aspect of Brexit, with one example being ‘backstop.’ Additionally, Brexit is now recognized internationally, with the word entering straight into other languages without being translated.
Brexit was coined in a May 2012 article for a European blog by Peter Wilding, a solicitor specialising in European law who previously served as the Media and Policy Director of the Conservative Party in the EU from 2005-2008. The real inspiration for the word Brexit however came from the word Grexit, which was coined in February 2012 in reference to the possibility of a Greek exit from the Eurozone by Willem Buiter, the Chief Economist at Citigroup. Buiter’s impressive résumé includes working as a professor at the London School of Economics; as an advisor to Goldman Sachs; as a consultant to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); with Buiter still being an adjunct senior fellow at the notable American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Curiously however, the history of the word Brexit could be said to be much older than 2012, as the structural composition of the word can be traced to a book that was published in the 1940s. Perhaps coincidentally, the word Brexit shares the exact same logical structure as a word that you would find in newspeak, the language George Orwell created for his book 1984, which was first published in 1949.
In Orwell’s masterpiece, newspeak was the official language of Oceania (Orwell 2008: 5), one of the main geographical blocs in Orwell’s book. Newspeak had been devised to meet the “ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism” (Orwell 2008: 312), with Ingsoc being the all-seeing, totalitarian party in 1984. The purpose of newspeak was to serve Ingsoc’s ideological outlook and “make all other modes of thought impossible” which were outside of what was officially sanctioned by the party (Orwell 2008: 312).
In newspeak, the Ministry of Truth became Minitrue; the Ministry of Peace became Minipax; the Ministry of Love became Miniluv; and the Ministry of Plenty became Miniplenty (Orwell 2008: 5-6). By the same logic, British exit has become Brexit. Whether by coincidence or not, Brexit is literally newspeak!
It is generally considered that Orwell had two main sources of inspiration when creating newspeak for 1984. The first was cablese, a type of shorthand often used by journalists (Courtine and Willet 1986: 71). The second and most interesting inspiration for newspeak came from a global language experiment that began in the late 1920s, known as Basic English (Courtine and Willet 1986: 71). Basic English was created and promoted by the linguist, philosopher, writer and psychologist, Charles Kay Ogden, with Basic English designed to be a highly simplified version of the standard English language (Courtine and Willet 1986: 71).
One of the core reasons Ogden created this language was in the hope that Basic English would become the international language of the world, with the simplicity of it designed so that international politicians and financiers could learn it with relative ease (Courtine and Willet 1986: 72). In essence, Basic English was designed to be at the level of difficulty of a competent six-year old child (Courtine and Willet 1986: 72). Basic English gained in popularity during the 1930s, with agencies devoted to promoting Basic English operational in 30 countries.
Winston Churchill was even attracted to the idea, with the iconic leader setting up a cabinet committee on Basic English in 1943 in addition to speaking on the committees report in the House of Commons in 1944. Churchill outlined how Britain should use the British Council and the BBC in order to develop and promote Basic English as an auxiliary international language. Considering Orwell spent time during World War 2 working as a propagandist for the BBC, it seems plausible that he was exposed to Basic English during this period.
For whatever reason, it is interesting to note that one of the most frequently used words of the 21st century comes directly from the pages of one of the most iconic books of the 20th century.
Allen, K. (2012) Greek impasse raise fears of ‘Grexit’ – The Guardian, 7 Feb.
BBC News. (2016) Brexit added to Oxford English Dictionary – 15 Dec.
Buiter, W. Expert Bio – Council on Foreign Relations.
Courtine, J, J., and Willett, L. (1986) ‘A Brave New Language: Orwell’s Invention of “Newspeak” in 1984’ SubStance, 15:2, 69-74.
Dowd, V. (2017) Why George Orwell is returning to the BBC – BBC News, 7 Nov.
Flood, A. (2016) Brexit named word of the year, ahead of Trumpism and hygge – The Guardian, 3 Nov.
Orwell, G. (2008) Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books).
Ro, C. (2019) How Brexit Changed the English Language – BBC News, 14 Mar.
Scott, J., and Gordon, T. (2009) Ogden, Charles Kay – Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography.
Wilding, P. (2012) Stumbling towards the Brexit – BlogActiv, 15 May.
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