Is ‘Brexit’ the Worst Political Portmanteau in History?
Remain or leave, the worst thing about the EU referendum debate is arguably that the word ‘Brexit’ ever caught on, let alone underpinned an entire side of the debate.
The term is now so normalised that king of satire John Oliver used it with barely any irony in his anti-Brexit polemic. Only nineties rapper-turned-footballer John Barnes seemed to see sense when he was forced to clarify his stance on the referendum to the Guardian, pointedly referring to it by its component parts — “British exit.”
This is less an anti-Brexit polemic, than an anti-’Brexit’ one. I’d hate to leave the EU, but I would hate more for people keep using the word ‘Brexit’ while we negotiate leaving.
The problem with political portmanteaux
Normally I am positively portmental for a good portmanteau. It’s political portmanteaux that are the problem. Ask me my favourite onscreen couple and I’ll say Bennifer. Ask me my favourite onscreen Batman and I’ll say Battfleck. But using portmanteaux to discuss anything more serious than Ben Affleck’s love life and career is problematic. The phrase ‘Leaving the European Union’ has an appropriate gravity, but the word ‘Brexit’ sounds almost trivial.
Despite this, a good politimanteau is hard to argue against. ‘Czexit’, used to discuss the Czech Republic leaving the EU, is cleverer than ‘Brexit’. It includes more of the country’s name and is easier to pronounce. ‘Brexit’ was coined by people scraping the barrel for a buzzword, but ‘Czexit’ seems more natural.
Why ‘Brexit’ might be the worst political portmanteau in history
While ‘Czexit’ sounds like a combo of ‘Czech’ and ‘exit’, ‘Brexit’ sounds more like the position you would sit in whilst eating cereal. But Brexit’s problems go deeper. Combining ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’ doesn’t even make sense. To be pedantic, this country is called the United Kingdom. ‘Brexit’ cuts out Northern Ireland. Does that mean they get to stay if we Brexit?
Secondly, most people would say the UK is ‘leaving’ the EU, not ‘exiting’. Hence the ‘Leave’ campaign, which will no doubt go down alongside Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign as a deeply embarrassing part of our recent political history. And it’s a crowded field.
‘United Kingdom’ and ‘leave’ may not merge into a catchy nickname, but that’s fine. Not everything has to be a portmanteau.
Other bad political portmanteaux
‘Billary’ is another politimanteau that made a comeback recently. In context it is obvious what it means, but treating Bill and Hillary Clinton as a celebrity couple does have problems. Still, on a linguistic level, this portmanteau is actually pretty great, since it takes in the entire word ‘Bill’ and all but one letter of ‘Hillary’. Genius.
After Watergate, journalists tacked the ‘-gate’ suffix onto every scandal in hopes of likening them to the scandal for the ages. Four decades on, it still works quite well. But annoyingly, journalists dubbed Conservative patrician Andrew Mitchell’s run-in with the police at 10 Downing Street ‘Plebgate’ over the more postmodern ‘Gategate’. Hopefully if a scandal occurs at a dam they’ll call it ‘Watergate’, or if another scandal happens at the Watergate Hotel it’ll be ‘Watergategate’.
‘Sarah-Cuda’, likening Tina Fey’s beloved, larger-than-life SNL character to the popular snake, is more confusing. Calling a human a “snake” is arguably insulting, but this portmanteau was actually found on a Republican party bumper sticker. A term of endearment? Who knows. The ambiguity makes this portmanteau pointless.
The bright side of ‘Brexit’
Now we’ve set sail from Port Manteau and cruised the sea of bad wordplay, let’s just conclude that ‘Brexit’ is the worst of the bunch.
The silver lining to the good ship Brexitgate is that another poor-manteau recently entered parlance: ‘Bremainers’ — a word so ridiculous, it must have been coined by someone making fun of how stupid the word ‘Brexit’ is. But while ‘Brexit’ has been around long enough for people take it seriously, no one could say ‘Bremainers’ without sounding like they’re mocking anyone who has ever said ‘Brexit’ with a straight face. Myself included.
So I implore you to join me, Bremainers and Inbretweeners: add a ‘B’ to the ‘Remain’ on your ballot paper. Let’s truly stick two fingers up to, not just the concept, but the word ‘Brexit’.
Except don’t, because your vote won’t count.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.co.uk on June 23, 2016.