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On 23 January 2013, the Daily Mail described David Cameron’s much-delayed speech on Europe that day as an “historic ultimatum”. He proposed that Britain’s membership of the European Union should be renegotiated, to be followed by what he called an “in-out referendum” on whether the country should stay or leave. Wits immediately dubbed it the hokey-cokey referendum (Americans will prefer hokey-pokey), with one headline reading “In-out, that’s not what it’s all about”.

His speech has pushed the neologism Brexit, short for British exit, to the foreground. Strictly, of course, it’s the United Kingdom that would be leaving, but Ukexit is too clunky to be acceptable.

Brexit began to appear in the British press at the start of 2012:

The PM indulges loose talk of a renegotiated relationship with a jittery, distracted Europe which could spiral into a risky in/out referendum. No wonder Ukip’s Nigel Farage hopes for a breakthrough or that Brussels has a new word: “Brexit”.

The Guardian, 1 Jan. 2012. UKIP, said as u-kip, is the UK Independence Party, meaning independence from the EU.

It appeared often enough during 2012 to be noticed in passing in a couple of Words of the Year compilations. But it was overshadowed by the term it was modelled on, Grexit, the possibility that Greece would leave the euro currency zone. Its visibility has grown hugely following Mr Cameron’s speech, not only in Britain and other English-speaking countries, but also throughout Europe, including France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands. An Austrian news site commented sadly on the day of the PM’s speech: “Und jetzt droht eine lange Brexit-Debatte” (Now a long Brexit debate threatens) and a Czech one the day after wrote, “Odchod Británie z Evropské unie neboli „brexit“ by byl katastrofou” (Britain leaving the European Union, or “Brexit”, would be a disaster.) Such widespread popularity in Europe suggests that The Guardian was right to attribute its invention to EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

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Page created 02 Feb 2013