Britain’s EU Choice: ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’?

February 27, 2016

Britain’s EU Choice: ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’?
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2016

With the United Kingdom counting down to a June 23 referendum to decide whether the country should leave the European Union, the battle lines have been drawn: “Brexit” or “Bremain”?

“Brexit,” a blend of “Britain” and “exit,” has been the favored term for the looming possibility of the U.K.’s departure from the EU for a few years now. “Bremain,” blending “Britain” and “remain,” is a newer concoction, an attempt by the opposing side to come up with a similarly catchy label.

The roots of “Brexit” go back to 2012, when speculation ran high that debt-besieged Greece might leave the eurozone. This scenario was dubbed “Grexit” in a paper published in February of that year by two economists from Citigroup, Willem Buiter and Ebrahim Rahbari.

Though Mr. Buiter was the lead author of the paper, he was quick to credit Mr. Rahbari with coining “Grexit,” perhaps the most successful geopolitical neologism of the decade.

Mr. Rahbari, currently the director of global economics at Citigroup, told me that “Grexit” was “born out of convenience,” a way to avoid longer expressions like “Greek Eurozone exit.” “A short moniker made it less cumbersome, both in writing and reading,” he explained.

Mr. Rahbari’s coinage circulated quickly among observers of the European economic crisis, and soon it spawned portmanteau words involving other countries, such as “Spexit” for Spain, “Frexit” for France, “Czexit” for the Czech Republic and “Fixit” for Finland. For the British scenario, the Economist tried out “Brixit” as early as June 2012, and by that August BBC News was warning of the “The Great British Brexit.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Greece prompted further “Grexit”-inspired blends. Motivated by his colleague’s word-building, Mr. Buiter coined “Grimbo” to describe the limbo that the Greek economy experienced due to its uncertain future. Other economists warned that Greece could end up shut out from the eurozone by accident, a possibility named “Graccident.”

Lately, Britain has caught the neologistic fever. Those in the Leave campaign are called “Brexiters” or “Brexiteers.” Political commentator Gary Robinson wryly announced on Twitter that as an expert on Brexit, he should be known as a “Brexpert.”

“Bremain” emerged as the counterpart of “Brexit” last June, thanks to Ireland’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Mulhall. Reuters reported that Mr. Mulhall said, “We want Britain to remain in the EU. We want not ‘Brexit’ but ‘Bremain.’” It does not have quite the same zing as “Brexit,” and for some it might unfortunately evoke another blend: “cremains,” for one’s cremated remains.

As the Brexiters battle the Bremainers, Mr. Rahbari greets the success of “Grexit” and its European progeny with bemusement. “It’s funny to see this minilinguistic avalanche, set off by me in some form,” he said. Though he worries that the new words may serve to trivialize serious events, he hopes that they will “end up being a relatively useful way to communicate about complex situations.”

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