The referendum of 2016 brought about a new division in the UK: between Leavers and Remainers, or put more informally, between Brexiteers and Remoaners. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of both sides – and will try not to reveal my own position! – but want to look instead at some of the new words generated by the discussion around Brexit.
Back in May 2016, we published a blog post on the new word Brexit. That was before the referendum, in which votes in favour of leaving the EU (European Union) outnumbered votes to remain, by a slim margin. Since then, as the British government struggles to negotiate with the EU exactly what Brexit will entail, the split of opinion and passions surrounding this issue continue to be strong. Language has evolved to help convey some of those emotions.
One new word is Brexiteer, defined here by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:
Brexiteer has overtaken Brexiter, another new word meaning the same thing but more neutral in connotation.
What does the suffix -eer convey? In some words it simply signifies a person that does something connected to the noun it’s attached to – for example: auctioneer, engineer, mountaineer, puppeteer, volunteer. -eer is also the suffix in some loanwords that have come into English from French – for example: buccaneer (French: boucanier), mutineer (French: mutinier), pioneer (French: pionnier), musketeer (French: mousquetaire). This category of words often describe a daring, dashing (= usually of a man: attractive, confident, elegant) or swashbuckling (= especially of a hero from the past: adventurous, fighting with a sword, etc.) sort of person. Additionally, -eer marks several nouns as pejorative (= disapproving) – for example: profiteer, racketeer.
So which category does Brexiteer belong to? Who uses it about whom?
People in the Leave camp were, particularly at the outset, cautious of the words Brexit and its derivatives Brexiteer/Brexiter. Brexit, at least since the Prime Minister Mrs May insisted after the referendum that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, has established itself as an ordinary term in discussions. It is even used freely in other languages:
Pour comprendre ce qu’est le Brexit, il faut d’abord expliquer ce qu’est le Royaume-Uni. [from Libération, 7 April 2017]
Mit dem Brexit will Großbritannien auch aus dem Europäischen Binnenmarkt ausscheiden. [from Zeit Online, 28 March 2018]
Bruksela odrzuca model pobrexitowych stosunków między UE i Wlk. Brytanią, który premier Theresa May zapopronowała w ub. tygodniu. [from wyborcza.pl, 7 March 2018]
Brexiteer hasn’t gained the same neutral function as Brexit. Whether it has a positive or negative ring (= quality) depends on the speaker. Clearly some Leave supporters are happy to embrace it as a positive description:
‘Brexiteer brings to mind buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer,’ says Michael Gove. ‘It lends a sense of panache (= the quality of being able to do things in a confident and elegant way that other people find attractive) and romance to the argument.’ [from The Spectator, 24 September 2016]
Notice Mr Gove did not add mutineer to his list, as that word carries with it a sense of rebellion without the more attractive attributes of a pioneer, etc. However, Brexiteer is also used by those who oppose Brexit to suggest someone who is recklessly putting the country’s future at risk. One thing a Brexiteer has is a passionate commitment to the cause. Corpus evidence shows Brexiteer used with adjectives such as ardent and convinced. For the more extreme variety of Brexiteer there are adjectives such as hard, hard-line and arch – there are many fewer soft Brexiteers in use.
Three pro-Brexit ministers in Mrs May’s post-referendum cabinet – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox – were dubbed (= to give somebody/something a particular name, often in a humorous or critical way) The Three Brexiteers and portrayed in media illustrations as the legendary Three Musketeers.
Remoaner is a pejorative and humorous new word that Brexit supporters use of their opponents, criticizing them for failing to accept the result of the referendum with their talk of second referendums, and ongoing forecasts of doom (= death or destruction; any terrible event that you cannot avoid) once Brexit is in place. Here is the new entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:
It replaces -main- in the neutral term Remainer with moan (= to make a long deep sound, e.g. expressing unhappiness or suffering). Remoaner is made even more negative by the addition of adjectives such as miserable, whinging or bleating.
While this play on words started life as a noun, it has given rise to a few derivatives, especially the gerund and present participle:
When will the remoaners stop remoaning and accept the fact that the UK is leaving the EU? [from Yahoo Answers]
… if ‘remoaning’ means standing up for EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK … [from The Mirror]
Remoaner is a blend or portmanteau word in that it combines elements of two separate words, but is different from classic blends in that it sounds more like a distortion of a known word – a distortion of Remainer.
The blend word frenemy will most probably come in handy more and more in discussing post-Brexit relations:
friend + enemy = frenemy
Here is its entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:
This word is actually not anywhere near as new as Brexiteer and Remoaner: its first use is recorded as being in 1953. But its usage has increased in recent years.
The big band of Brexiteers includes many frenemies: people united in their wish to leave the EU but otherwise with different political views or social backgrounds. In the situation in which the UK will be cutting at least some ties with old friends, it will need new ones – and will most likely have to make some frenemies too! Which countries will prove to be lifelong friends, and which will become best frenemies remains to be seen.
Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries & Reference Grammar department. She has been editing bilingual dictionaries and grammar reference materials for learners of English for more than 20 years.