Britain + Exit

Brexit, History of a Fateful Word

Brexit vote out
Brexit, a loaded word.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    No one can escape this week’s battle over Brexit: the referendum on Britain’s future in or out of the European Union. But who invented the word? And why?

  • Facts


    The first usage of “Brexit” can be dated to early summer 2012.

    The original coinage was based on “Grexit,” the name given to a possible Greek expulsion from the euro zone.

    No one knows if Britain will decide for “Brexit” or not on Thursday. The two sides are neck and neck in the polls, with a substantial number of voters still undecided.

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Germany, Europe and the world – everyone is talking about “Brexit.” Search for it on Google and you’ll have 87 million results to choose from. Everyone knows what it means: the subject of Thursday’s bitter referendum: should Britain (Br) leave (exit) the European Union? A fateful decision and a historical event.

But where does the term “Brexit” come from? When and where did it first appear? It takes quite some tracking down, since it is not as simple as “Grexit,” the name for a possible Greek departure from the euro zone. “Grexit,” it can be safely said, was coined by Willem Buiter and Ebrahim Rahbari, two economists from the Citigroup, who wrote this sentence in an article in February 2012: “We are raising our estimate of the probability of a Greek departure from the euro zone (‘Grexit’) to 50 percent in the next 18 months.” And so “Grexit” was born.

The term then spread like wildfire, becoming the model for a series of further coinages. This included “Brexit,” although this word referred to a referendum decision on leaving the E.U., rather than a forced expulsion from the euro zone. Among the first to use the new term “Brexit” was the think tank British Influence, who used it in a tweet in May 2012. “Stumbling towards the Brexit,” wrote the non-profit, which campaigns for a more active role for Britain in the European Union and the world, claiming that E.U. membership makes the country “stronger, safer, more influential and more prosperous.”

“People like it when complex ideas are packed into a simple, internationally comprehensible slogan. Particularly in the age of the internet.”

Jeremy Cliffe, Bagehot columnist, Economist weekly magazine

Some time later, in June 2012, the Economist magazine used the word in somewhat modified form. “Brixit” first appeared in the Bagehot’s Notebook blog, named for the British economist and journalist Walter Bagehot, editor of the magazine between 1861 and 1877. The magazine column from three years ago warned that Britain’s relationship with the European Union was failing in a piece headlined: “A Brixit looms.”

In the meantime, “Brexit” has won out over “Brixit” and all other variants. And it is a popular term.  

“People like it when complex ideas are packed into a simple, internationally comprehensible slogan. Particularly in the age of the Internet,” said the Economist’s Bagehot columnist Jeremy Cliffe. “In the meantime, Brexit is used by everyone: politicians, media and academics,” he added.

It remains to be seen whether “Brexit” can become as famous as “Grexit,” which came third in Germany’s annual ranking of “words of the year.” In Britain, just a few days before the referendum, both sides are neck and neck. It is simply too close to call.

Kirsten Ludowig is deputy editor of Handelsblatt’s companies and markets section, specializing in the trade sector. To contact her:

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