Stocks plunged. Political parties imploded. Fear flared. Europe as we know it quaked. The world freaked out last Friday after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, or “Brexit,” the now-household blend of British and exit the process is going by. And across the media, the shocking results triggered a paroxysm—a bravalanche, a mass brysteria—of Brexit-induced portmanteaus.
Welcome to Portmantexia, as linguist Arnold Zwicky has christened this brave new world: Many U.K. citizens who voted to Bremain bemoaned the brevastation this brexplosion detonated. Assessing the damage, some Brexiteers now expressed bremorse and bregret, or regrexit, over the results. These Bracksies wondered how the U.K. might stage a breturn. Brecriminations in Parliament began to fly. Some who were in-bretween wished they hadn’t skipped the polls on voting day. Dismayed and afraid, immigrants, urbanites, and businesses weighed a brexodus from the U.K. Plenty of brexperts weighed in. A number of tweeters have summed up this brexistential crisis with a tour de force take on Kübler-Ross’ classic five stages of grief: brenial, branger, brargaining, brepression or debression, bracceptance or even euukceptance.
Over on the continent meanwhile, right-wing separatists in the Netherlands felt a boost for their Nexit cause, in France for Frexit, in Italy Italexit. German nationalists turned to their native Deutschland for Dexit, Austrians to Österreich for Oexit. Spexit, Pexit, Fixit, Polexit, Swexit, even Czexit: Each country in the EU is getting the “-exit” treatment, inspiring other wry variations like Retireland or Quitaly. Stateside, some have joked about a Texit for the Lone Star State, a Trexit from (or by) the Donald.
But why did we collectively turn to the wordplay of these brortmanteaux and portmanteauxits in the immediate wake of the EU referendum results? After all, Brexit, or Brixit as it appeared early on, is documented all the way back in May 2012 and was modeled after Grexit, or Greece’s hypothetical exit from the eurozone. A mix of linguistic and cultural reasons helps explain why.
First, the phonology of Brexit was ripe for proliferation. The consonant cluster [br] and vowel [ɛ], as phoneticians render the E in exit, are very common sounds in English. We can easily stack [br] onto an existing word, or stitch together -xit with the connective tissue of [ɛ], to yield a word that sounds new but English-y.
Second, Brexit needed no training as a new word, courtesy of the lexical load its familiar exit already carried. It welcomed prefixes and suffixes: post-Brexit and Brexit-esque. It took on agency: a Brexiter. It functioned as a modifier: the Brexit fallout. It doubled as verb: to Brexit. Novel but natural, Brexit easily set up shop in English grammar, open for the business of wordplay.
Third, Brexit is right at home in our current zeitgeist of new word formation in English: blending. Older blends, like brunch and smog, are common to the point of invisibility. More recent examples seem contrived and forced and, as such, are met with backlash: healthineer or sustainagility are good examples. Others, such as listicle, athleisure, and bromance, prove successful because they fill a semantic gap in the language.
But blending has become such a common and productive process of neologism in English, woven into the very fabric of our mashup, niche-seeking, and self-referential culture, that we are breaking apart words in whole new ways. Like the libfix, a term coined by Arnold Zwicky. As Neal Whitman explained the phenomenon for the Week:
Sometimes a particular word gets pulled into so many portmanteaus that a fragment of that word becomes “liberated” to become an affix (i.e. a prefix or suffix) all by itself — but one that has a much more specific meaning than what you get with affixes like un-, -ly, or -ness. The best example might be the suffix -gate, which jumped free of the name Watergate to embark on a successful career turning any noun into a scandal.
Brexit is a natural candidate for libfixation. Br- quickly jumped free of the word Brexit to signify anything related to the political reality of Brexit. As warmed up by Grexit and predicted by several linguascenti, -exit or -xit lent itself to “a sudden, unexpected, or premature departure.” Scoxit has been revived to Scotland’s possible departure from the U.K. Indians dubbed Raghuram Rajan’s stepping down from the Royal Bank of India the Rexit. Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football is known as the Mexit. Yet earlier, South Africans were watching out for a Zumxit if President Jacob Zuma resigned. Some are even freeing brex from Brexit, if brexcringing and the Sun’s “How the Brex Was Won” are any measure.
So why did the Brexit blends spread so fast? The answer points us to a fourth and fifth reason for the brinvansion. Many in politics, media, and, of course, the U.K. and Europe were long familiar with the 4-year-old Brexit. Oxford Dictionaries even entered Brexit into its online dictionaries. But many more around the globe, especially Americans, first tuned into the EU referendum right before or after the vote. And their point of introduction, their first impression was the unusual, playful, but still very English-y and topical coinage: Brexit. Radio hosts glossed the term at the top of their segments; podcasters remarked on its irksomeness. Facebook users likened it to breakfast. Linguists have discussed its pronunciation and syntax. In its coverage of Brexit, the New York Times still marks it as a novel formation. The language of the Brexitsphere was already marked and meta, primed for, welcoming of wordplay.
Finally, the victory of “Leave” was a massive surprise. Today, we turn to social media, that new public square, to process such big, surprising news. In this space, observers—and the residents directly affected, above all—searched for words and leaned on humor to understand, cope with, celebrate, or try to articulate such a dramatic and chaotic experience. Brexit wordplay was a way to participate in and make sense of this historic moment in real time. Like bringing chips and dip to a party, Brexit was already linguistically and culturally packaged, ready for us to rip them open and start snacking.
Brexit, as a word and phenomenon, isn’t going anywhere. It, and its family of variations, will likely contend as the 2016 Word of the Year in various dictionaries and associations. But as for brexplosion or Zumxit? As with so much of our viral memes and trending hashtags, we greedily and compulsively gobbled up all the chips and dip. We quickly reached peak Brexit, er, peakxit.