The Scottish independence referendum: one year on
This time last year, the British press (and, indeed, British conversation) was full of talk about the Scottish independence referendum. It took place on 18 September 2014, and was to determine whether or not Scotland should be an independent country – the alternative being remaining part of the United Kingdom.
As discussion around the topic grew, leading up to the vote, there were several relevant terms which saw a sharp increase in usage. Eventually the vote was ‘No’ (with 55.3% to 44.7%), but which are the winners and losers in the language stakes? We picked four of the main contenders (cybernat, rUK, indyref, and devo max) and explored the New Monitor Corpus, which gathers millions of real examples of English in use from a wide variety of sources each month, to see how they have fared over time.
As the graph demonstrates, devo max had the biggest spike of the four during the referendum period itself, despite having lagged a little in the months running up to it. It is a combination of the words devolution and maximum, devolution being ‘the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to local or regional administration’.
Devo max was coined specifically in relation to Scotland, and was a proposed constitutional arrangement to offer Scotland greater fiscal powers rather than full independence; essentially, a compromise. Though the term had been used before the 2014 referendum (there was a flurry of opinion polls and articles in 2012 as the UK Parliament devolved more powers to the Scottish Parliament, for instance, which may explain the term’s smaller spike at that point), it became a much-debated talking point in the run up to the referendum. After that, though, its use immediately subsided, with much smaller peaks earlier in 2015.
Since devo max was far and away the most popular of the four terms in September 2014, this graph looks at the other three, to give a clearer picture of their relative popularity.
Indyref is an abbreviation of independence referendum. It appeared originally as a Twitter hashtag (where, of course, brevity is paramount), and this is where it was most often found during its period of prevalence. This use was enough for indyref to make the shortlist for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014, though its popularity quickly dwindled in 2015 – which, given that it referred to a specific event rather than to a concept or view, was perhaps to be expected.
When discussing those parts of the United Kingdom other than Scotland – that is, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – some commentators used rUK or RUK, standing for ‘rest of the UK’ or ‘rump UK’. The term was already in use before 2014, though most often found in official or technical situations (such as export statistics or student funding legislation) than in everyday conversation.
It took on a more prominent meaning when it came to refer to those countries which would constitute the United Kingdom if Scotland were no longer part of it, rather than simply the countries in the United Kingdom other than Scotland. Both uses of rUK denote England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, of course, but with different emphasis and connotations. iScotland was also used, referring to a theoretical independent Scotland.
As the graph shows, the spike in use around February 2014 was actually higher than that at the time of the referendum. One possibility for this peak is the notable speech delivered on 13 February by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in which he ruled out the possibility of a currency union with an independent Scotland.
Since the result of the referendum was ‘No’, it is perhaps unsurprising that rUK quickly fell out of common use; since March 2015, its appearance in the Corpus has been negligible.
A cybernat is a pejorative term for an online supporter of Scottish independence (where nat is an abbreviation of nationalist). The combining form cyber- (‘relating to electronic communication networks and virtual reality’) has come in for its share of flak over time. It dates to the 1960s and is now often considered rather dated – think cyberspace or cybermall – but, conversely, is also found in still-used terms like cyberwar and cyberbullying, as we explored when the American TV series CSI: Cyber launched.
Political debates between rival factions (whether in positions of power or otherwise) are, of course, increasingly taking place on social media. Notable tweets for the ‘No’ vote came from people as varied as Barack Obama, J.K Rowling and Simon Cowell. Those in favour of the ‘Yes’ campaign included Andy Murray, Russell Brand, and Alan Cumming.
Perhaps surprisingly, this word hit its peak some time before the referendum, in June 2014, and didn’t have a significant rise when the vote came around: it might not be a coincidence that it was in June that J.K. Rowling donated to the ‘Better Together’ campaign and received online abuse that was much-documented in the media. A recent rise in use of cybernat may relate to various articles about abuse given on Twitter by independence supporters towards several political figures.
Only time will tell how all of these words fare in the forthcoming months and years.