Brexit – a power-word full of consequences

On this nth ‘crunch’ day for the so-called ‘Brexit’, some thoughts about an empty but powerful word with heavy consequences.

One word, many meanings

Brexit. The word has become anathema to many people. They are heartily sick of it. And justifiably so. Politicians  and pundits unceasingly wave it around like a magic wand, or a trunk full of treasures, the very thing everyone needs, a saving grace, or a can of worms, a red cloth to a bull, a door open to certain disaster. The word has a multitude of meanings provide you don’t examine it too closely. 


‘Brexit’ is a typical example of what I call a power-word. A word that has gone beyond usual meanings to become special, larger than life, magic almost. Rather like a curse or an enchantment, a power-word has the ability to evoke all manner of hopes and fears. That’s why such words are so commonly used in politics and advertising. If you want to wield that power, the one thing you mustn’t do is reduce it to a tangible reality. The word has to remain a proverbial black box the contents or workings of which can never be fully known, only hinted at as a promise or a threat. 

Emotions trump rational thinking

As ultimately unknowable, words like ‘Brexit’ serve to conjure up a hazy reality that suits the wielder’s needs. Unfortunately, in the dazed state that words such as ‘Brexit’ induce, most people are unwilling to heed rational arguments. It is almost as if the power of such words includes the ability to hinder rational thought and favour emotional response. Repeated use seems to heighten the effect, especially in slogans like “We must get Brexit done!” or “Brexit is the will of the people” or “Parliament has a duty to deliver Brexit.” 

Slogans to sway people

In these slogans, the word ‘Brexit’ represents a deliberately vague concept with a strong emotional charge that defies definition because it’s role is not to define but to mobilise. You might say it’s a language of action driven by emotions rather than reason. It is an ideal language for those that want to influence people, swaying them by suspending their rational judgement and appealing to deeper emotions, particularly fear.

What about the consequences?

That you can’t nail down ‘Brexit’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences, serious ones, but the last thing advocates of the notion want is to shine a clear light on consequences. There lies the point. Power-words are generally used to convince people to act in a certain way without carefully thinking through the consequences. If they did, they’d realise that ‘Brexit’ or whatever they’d signed up for wasn’t what they thought it was. And the magic bubble would burst. The challenge then lies in convincingly predicting necessarily uncertain outcomes in a minefield of wild promises and dour threats.

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