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noun [uncountable]

the situation of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union

'Betting markets put the odds that Britons opt to leave at two-to-one; some polls suggest the voters are evenly split; several cabinet ministers are campaigning for Brexit. There is a real chance that in four months' time Britain could be casting off from Europe's shores.'

Economist 27th February 2016

'Should I stay or should I go?' for people of a certain age, those words might instantly evoke the dulcet tones of a 1981 hit by punk rock band The Clash. In 2016 however, they're a laughingly apt catchphrase in British politics. After several years of debate fuelled by so-called Eurosceptics (politicians disgruntled with the UK's membership of the European Union), next month the UK finally gets to decide whether it is categorically in or out of the EU – will Brexit die an abrupt death, or become an unprecedented reality?

Next month the UK finally gets to decide whether it is categorically in or out of the EU – will Brexit die an abrupt death, or become an unprecedented reality?

The coinage Brexit is of course a tongue-in-cheek reference to Great Britain no longer being part of the European Union – in other words a British exit from the EU. Following through on its re-election pledge back in 2013, in which the UK's Conservative government confirmed it would hold a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in late February that the issue would go to public vote on 23rd June – and with it the word Brexit gained renewed vitality and an imposing presence across the headlines.

Whatever the arguments for and against departure from the EU, the serious business of finally stopping the cogitating and making a real decision has delivered a flurry of lexical fall out. Those in support of the split have been dubbed brexiters, or even brexiteers, a light-hearted mash-up of Brexit and pioneer. On the other side of the camp, the campaign to retain the UK's membership of the EU has latterly been nicknamed Bremain (Britain and remain), with those supporting it correspondingly described as Bremainers.

Catchy though they are, it's more than likely that these terms will be tossed on the lexical scrapheap once the decision has been made. What's far more uncertain however are the consequences of a split, since no member state has ever left the EU before.

Background – Brexit

The term Brexit first appeared in June 2012, on the model of Grexit, a term which had appeared earlier in the year in reference to the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone (the group of EU countries which use the Euro as a unit of currency). Its coinage attributed to economist Ebrahim Rahbari, Grexit has also inspired the word Fixit in relation to Finland's ongoing deliberations on Eurozone membership, and more recently Czechit in relation to the Czech Republic's relationship with the EU.

Brexit reflects a growing trend in recent years of coining a catchy new expression to appealingly characterize a topical scenario. There are plenty of other examples, some of which we've featured on BuzzWord, e.g. Titanorak, when the sinking of the Titanic hit its hundredth anniversary in 2012, Henmania when British Tennis player Tim Henman put in a desperate bid to win Wimbledon in the early 2000s (now of course resoundingly superseded by Murraymania), birther when there was controversy surrounding President Obama's US citizenship in 2011, Iraqnophobia when the allies invaded Iraq in 2003, and Frankenstorm when hurricane Sandy battered the US east coast in 2012. There are many more like these, appearing and disappearing with the ebb and flow of current affairs, but more popular and prolific than ever before because of their visibility and propagation via the web.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 3rd May 2016.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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