The etymology of Brexit

…different things to different people… Image by Anthea Bareham

‘Brexit’: a word which inspires irrational passion in some, and sadness and loathing in so many of others. “Brexit means Brexit” – really? What is its etymology, its origin? The very word ‘Brexit’ is nothing more than a corny ‘portmanteau’ word, a blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined to make a new word. British exit, rather like ‘smog’, a blend of smoke and fog. It could be said that the Brexit campaign was political ‘smog’ – a lack of clear visibility, which brought about the small majority for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum.

The word ‘Brexit’ smacks of the typical cheap and nasty linguistic tricks which I hate, but which are beloved of the writers of front-page headlines in the populist newspapers. In fact, ironically it seems to have been invented by a remainer in 2012, but soon became the sacred mantra of leavers. Indeed, the slogan ‘Get Brexit done’ is still trotted out by the right-wing faction which has taken over the Conservative party.

A brief look at the etymology – the development history – of a few words from English and other languages will lead us to a significant conclusion about languages and the people who speak them… and an interesting way to evaluate Brexit!

The roots of English

On the whole, there is very little to say about the etymology of basic words. At some point, ancient people started refining their primaeval grunts and allocated them to specific things; ‘dog’, for example is one such quite random word, and it could just as easily have been allocated to a cat, and vice-versa. The word ‘cat’, on the other hand, whilst its origin was probably just as random, has an identifiable etymology – it has a longer traceable history. Compare:

dog: etymology: Middle English dogge, Old English docga before 1050


cat: etymology:  Late Latin cattus, catta (fourth century onwards, presumably with the introduction of domestic cats); Middle English cat, catte, Old English catt (masculine), catte (feminine); cognate with Old Frisian, Middle Dutch katte, Old High German kazza, Old Norse kǫttr, Irish cat, Welsh cath (Slavic kotù, Lithuanian katė̃, perhaps).

A good online dictionary such as will usually offer the etymology of words, as in this case.

The earliest language spoken in Great Britain was, in fact, close to what we now know as Welsh. English was effectively the language of the Angles, who invaded our island after the Romans. Perhaps true ‘Brexiters’ should speak Welsh rather than the language of the invaders! English has its basis in West-Germanic, with so many words similar to their German equivalent, such as house < Haus, mother < Mutter, and grandfather < Großvater (which always provoked giggles in German lessons I observed being taught by my PGCE students!). A slight bit of linguistic elasticity is needed with some words, as also with dog (or hound) < Hund, church < Kirche, and cat < Katze.

However, modern English also has a huge proportion of words derived from Latin; in fact, around 60 per cent of English vocabulary is of Latin etymology, rising to 90 per cent in specialised fields such as science and medicine. When my eldest daughter was studying medicine, although she had never learnt Latin she loved the logic of anatomical terms such as ‘brachial artery’ from Latin brachium – arm; ‘pectoral muscles’ from pectus – chest; and ‘cardiac surgery’ from cor – heart.

The same goes for every branch of science; the Wild Service tree earned its name from the Latin cervisia – beer, because in ancient times people used its small fruit to make a fermented, beer-like drink. Latin was extensively based on Greek, and these two languages provide much of the specialist vocabulary for science.

During my few years of teaching GCSE Latin by video-conferencing, I found it very satisfying when pupils used their basic linguistic knowledge to work things out for themselves. Here are a couple of random examples: impedire, to impede, from pes, pedis, the Latin word for foot; this was reinforced during an early morning online lesson when we heard my wife cursing the cat for getting under her feet, thereby impeding her progress as she was rushing off to work! One of the books in the Cambridge Latin Course deals with the Romans in Britain, and mentions how the Druids revered the mistletoe (Latin viscum), whose sticky berries gave us the words ‘viscous’ and ‘viscosity’.

Like many Latin words, the ‘-ologies’ are originally of Greek etymology, coming to us via Latin; Greek lógos means ‘word, reason’, hence it appears in many words describing a field of knowledge. In the immortal words of Maureen Lipman “You get an ‘ology’, you’re a scientist!”. The word ‘science’ is derived from Latin scio – ‘I know’, but even everyday English is full of words of Latin etymology, such as institution, cathedral, estate. In many cases the Latinate word exists alongside its counterpart from basic everyday language derived from Old English: fraternity, maternal, centre essentially mean the same as brotherhood, motherly, middle, though the Latinate words tend to be used in a slightly more ‘learned’ context.

Indo-European: the mother tongue!

Much very basic, everyday vocabulary is common across many languages whose shared roots go back many thousands of years to the Indo-European languages, which include almost all European languages as well as those of southwest and south Asia. Many ‘elemental’ words, such as those describing family members and people, are the same or very similar across these languages; for instance ‘mother’ is clearly related to German Mutter, Dutch Moeder, even Swedish mor; French mère, and Portuguese mäe; and, of course, ‘mother’ is a close cognate of Spanish madre, Italian madre… and mater in Latin, the ‘mother’ of Romance languages. Further afield, mā́tṛ, mātṛ́ – is ‘mother’ in Sanskrit the ‘mother language’ from which many languages of the Indian sub-continent are descended, such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi and Punjabi. The commonality in certain, very basic, elements of vocabulary is a fascinating topic in its own right.

Even non-Indo-European languages use the same or similar sounds for certain basic ideas: as regards Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese use for mother. This is hardly surprising, as when a baby cries and opens its lips, the voiced bilabial nasal plosive ‘m’ is inevitable. No wonder this is the first word a baby utters – along with the sound for ‘father’ in many languages: pa or ba resulting from the unvoiced bilabial plosive (‘p’), or the voiced bilabial plosive (‘b’); these are similar to ma, but without the nasal component to the sound.

Foreign travel

As a consequence of colonial expansion, the modern forms of Indo-European, particularly western European languages, are spoken throughout the world: indeed, 46 per cent of the world’s population speak an Indo-European language. The overwhelming majority of languages used on the internet are Indo-European. Hmmm… could it be that, like the internet, languages know no frontiers, but spread with the people who speak them ‒ unconstrained in the past by the modern borders which now obsess some people.

Vocabulary sharing is ‘linguistic osmosis’, a two-way process. We’ve described the origins of most English vocabulary, but what other sources of vocabulary have contributed to modern English? Here are a few examples of words from some of the vocabulary ‘donors’ (etymology: from Latin donare – to give) from around the world:

Arabic: alcohol (al-kuhl), algebra (al-jabr), cotton (al-qutun), jasmine (yasmin), lemon (limun);

Nahuatl (Aztec – Mexico): tomato (tomatl), avocado (ahuacatl – testicle!), via approximation to Spanish abogado – advocate;

Arawak (S. America): tobacco (from word for pipe in which to smoke it); and

Hindi: kedgeree (khicari), verandah (baranda), bungalow (bangla).

Looking further afield, every language has borrowed words from elsewhere. In the Far East,

Sri-Lankan uses sapato for shoe; presumably acquired from European travellers or colonisers. Compare this with Portuguese sapato, Spanish zapato (shoe), Italian ciabatta (slipper).

Japanese used not to have an expression for ‘thank you’ until they borrowed one from Portuguese Jesuits: arigatou comes from Portuguese obrigado, clearly related to ‘obliged’.

Unsurprisingly, then, language can tell us a lot about history, in this case that of exploration, conquest and exploitation, and advances in technology.

Getting back to English, there are, of course, words more recently ‘imported’ to cover new ideas or features, or to describe them in a more sophisticated way. Many result from the popularity of holiday travel in western Europe – our nearest neighbours. Thus:

From Spanish: macho – machismo (NB in Spanish the ‘ch’ is pronounced as in English, not ‘k’ as in Italian Chianti), chorizo (pronounced ‘choreetho’ or ‘choreeso’, NOT with an Italian ‘ts’ sound!), patio (which just means ‘yard’!).

From Italian: latte (short ‘a’, long ‘t’ please; but if you ask just for ‘latte’ in an Italian café you’ll only get milk!), cappuccino (looks like the habit of a Capuchin monk… but traditionally only drunk before mid-day!), bruschetta (the ‘ch’ in Italian is a ‘k’ sound), pergola (stress on the first syllable, please!), loggia (sounds like ‘lodger’).

From French: lingerie which just means underwear (literally, linen), but sounds so much more sophisticated, (except that most Brits wrongly say ‘lonjerie’ instead of ‘lanjerie’ as it should be pronounced!), apéritif (appetiser), baguette (literally, stick), déjà vu (please not with ‘all over again’!)

Use of ‘foreign’ words and expressions is often an affectation; a student of mine once described how his mother used to say: “Sarna fairy Anne” – orat least that’s what he thought it was until he started studying French with me: “Oh, that’s how you spell it: Ça ne fait rien!” – (it doesn’t matter, it’s OK!). Inappropriate use and mispronunciation – of French in particular – can be the source of comedy. Del Boy, in Only Fools and Horses, is the archetypal pretentious ‘murderer’ of what he thinks is French, for instance “La bon vie”, “St Tropez, very mel de mar!” and “boeuf à la mode as the French say!”

Such linguistic butchery is not confined to Del Boy; a similar humorous effect can be seen in an Italian – or rather, Neapolitan – showing off his dodgy English in the film Troppo napoletano, in which the character of Esposito, the self-important school caretaker, tries to impress with his English and makes a bit of a mess of it with “umber one, umber two” and so on.

Battered borrowings

Increasingly, largely as a result of the influence of the internet and British and American culture, the flow is from English into other languages, as explained in a BBC article in 2014: “Does English still borrow words from other languages?” However, some ‘borrowings’ from English are adopted by our foreign neighbours with dodgy pronunciation, in ungrammatical form or actually misused. Here are some examples:

French: shampoing (‘shampoo’, as in “je vais faire un shampoing” (I’m going to shampoo my hair); le pressing (dry-cleaning!); and le shopping, which for once actually works grammatically as in “J’aime le shopping!”

Spanish: el jersey (pronounced hersei, borrowed from written English, but pronounced in Spanish style) and el suéter, (borrowed from spoken English but given a Spanish spelling to produce the correct sound); el cátering (catering company or service); and how about chóped? The grocer Chema in our favourite Spanish TV sitcom, Aida, often mentioned it, as did his customers; it took me ages to work out that it was ‘chopped’: luncheon meat. In fact, no less a body than the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy) gives its etymology as being from English ‘chopped’!

New shoots: necessity is the mother of… inventions

Then there is a whole body of recently acquired vocabulary – words pertaining to new inventions and technologies. Who would have dreamt, 40 years ago, of the importance in our everyday lives of words like computer, i-pad, and internet? The latter is a sort of ‘portmanteau’ invention like Brexit. Other words have acquired new meanings, such as mouse, keyboard and program, the latter with a simplified spelling in its new IT context. When I was a kid in the 1950s, a mobile was a converted van or bus which toured our housing estate – one for general groceries, another a mobile butcher’s, and another a greengrocer. Then in the trendy 1960s, a ‘mobile’ was an arty creation of dangling objects with which to decorate a room or hypnotize a baby with something colourful to look at above its cot; and now… Of course, what we are observing here is the multiplication or ‘migration’ of meanings, and the layers of association of some words.

A classic example is the development of associations attached to a simple word like orange. Its etymology tells us that it started as Sanskrit nāraṅga, then Persian nārang, Arabic nāranj, Old French orenge, cognate with Spanish Naranja – andsomehow losing its initial ‘n’ to become English ‘an orange’. Then we have the evolution of its meaning. Of course, we adults take it for granted that an orange is a fruit, and the colour associated with it. However, in the consciousness of a baby, the first experience associated with the sound of the word is its taste; “here you are, baby… orange juice, a nice change from boring old milk!”. Later, as the baby grows into a child, they will experience the fruit as an object, with its colour and texture… and will at some stage learn to peel it. Then the teenager and adult will associate the word ‘Orange’ with a mobile phone service. Geography and history may have a significance: ‘orange’ has particular associations in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands. In Spain, the expression ‘mi media naranja’ equates to English ‘my other half’. What a word means to an individual depends on the associations acquired over a lifetime, and the experiences of that individual: words can mean different things to different people. Brexit being a good example: utopia for some and a disaster for most.

West Country Voices has already covered the use of language by unscrupulous politicians to coerce and deceive the electorate. It is interesting to note how more and more totalitarian governments and right-wing politicians deplore the ‘invasion’ of their language by foreign words and expressions: the latest is Putin’s Russia. Even in a very Anglophile country like Italy, Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s party is proposing to impose fines on public and private entities for using foreign terms, notably English. France has often objected to English expressions, years ago famously inventing the term aéroglisseur rather than use ‘hovercraft’; and Germany has, in the not-too-distant past, tried to discourage the use of Anglicisms. That was in 2011; and one would perhaps expect that attitude to have hardened since Brexit.

Talking of politics and politicians, it is significant how new terms are popularised both by politicians themselves, and by the press to describe them and their antics. Such ‘inventions’ have now become commonplace: the title of a 1938 play and its 1944 film version have given us the term ‘gaslighting’ to describe how politicians try to hoodwink the public. ‘Woke’ is used as an insult (against all those of us, I would say, with a social conscience, integrity and a capacity for critical thinking); ‘snowflake’ has come to mean an overly sensitive or easily offended person; and since at least 2022, the Daily Mail has routinely described animal rights protesters as ‘vegan’ – most recently, in the context of protests against the barbarity of the Grand National. I am an omnivore, but I object to cruelty to and exploitation of animals; I have relatives and friends who are vegan and who don’t deserve this demonising and derogatory use of the word.

Brexit means…

Hmm… so it seems that English is, more than most, a language that has begged, stolen or borrowed from other languages. To quote the 2014 BBC article referred to earlier: “It’s very hard to be precise about the boundaries of the vocabulary of any language”. Hence the English language is just like the British nation: a veritable soup, or perhaps stew – even a bouillabaisse, being made up of so many disparate ingredients. Languages have no borders; words cross political frontiers just as they always have. So might it be true to say that the movement of words is like the movement of people? And that no language is ‘pure’, just as no nation is pure…

Might this mean that the ‘British people’ is an amalgam, just like its language? And that appealing to voters on the basis of ‘we want our country back’ is just as fallacious and impossible as any attempt to ‘purify’ the English language?

Brexit is an impossible and ridiculous concept, a sham, just as the word itself is a spurious invention, a portmanteau word like ‘smog’. If only there had been a good deal less political smog in the air at the time of the 2016 Referendum and the 2019 election, perhaps we could all have seen Brexit for the scam and shambles it is.

For more articles by Mike Zollo, click here.