‘Brexit’ and the language of departure

A coinage with roots in the theater is in the limelight as Britons consider departing the European stage.

Neil Hall/Reuters
A Brexit supporter holds a Union Flag at a Vote Leave rally in London, Britain on June 4, 2016.

The British referendum on membership in the European Union is just around the corner. Polling data suggest that if the “remain” side prevails, it’s likely to be close. 

A couple of ICM/Guardian polls released May 31 showed the so-called Brexit side leading, 52 percent to 48 percent. “Our poll rather unhinges a few accepted orthodoxies,” ICM’s director said. 

What is this “Brexit” anyway? It’s a portmanteau for “British exit,” an analogy with ­Grexit, or “Greek exit,” a term that had been coined a few months earlier.

Attributed to Willem Buiter and Ebrahim Rahbari of Citigroup, who used it in a February 2012 analysis, Grexit referred to the vexing prospect that Greece would seek to escape its financial troubles by pulling out of the eurozone. (As you recall, it did not – or has not yet, at least.)

But now the concern is that Britain may leave the EU altogether after more than 40 years.

Exit is a direct borrowing from Latin, the third-person singular form of the verb exire, meaning “to go out,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary

The word began life in English as a verb, a stage direction in plays. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary couldn’t resist citing one of Shakespeare’s more colorful examples, from “The Winter’s Tale”: “Exit pursued by a Beare.” 

The second sense of exit followed soon after: It meant to make one’s exit from a stage or similar situation, or simply to “leave, depart, disappear,” to quote Oxford further. In other words, exiting shifted from being something playwrights made actors do to being something people did of their own agency.

The noun sense of exit also goes back to the 16th century. It was likewise derived from the theater. But the word was also used to mean return, yield, or profit – as when today’s venture capitalists sell their stake in a company. Is that what Euroskeptical Britons have in mind with their notion of “exit”?

Exit as a noun referring to a physical space or place, rather than an action of departure, goes back to the middle of the 17th century. The highway sense of the word – “A junction at which a vehicle may leave a major road,” as Oxford puts it – is a 20th-century development. A usage example from 1919, in a trade journal called Highway Engineer and Contractor, sounds eerily modern: “Whether or not these broad entries and exits are constructed now, provision should be made to build them later by securing rights of way first.”

At least since 1980, political poll-takers have surveyed voters on their way out of polling stations after they have cast their ballots. But the June 23 referendum certainly gives new meaning to the phrase “exit poll.”

No one knows just what all the implications for a British withdrawal from the EU would be. But I can’t help thinking that some form of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” of foreign policy somehow applies here: You Brexit, you own it. 

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