Which words are people looking up post-Brexit?
The trending look-ups on OxfordDictionaries.com are often a good way to have a quick snapshot of the national and international topics of the day. These can be quite niche (we often see words turn up in UK trends that have featured on TV the night before; monkey parade and nosegay have both trended after being mentioned on Gogglebox) but often reflect the biggest trends of public discussion. Never has this been truer than in the aftermath of the British EU referendum, which took place on Thursday 23 June 2016 and led to a 52/48 majority in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.
Brexit is the term commonly used for the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union – formed from British or Britain + exit. It was on our shortlist for Word of the Year in 2015, but it is only in recent weeks that it has seen such a surge in searches.
The word Brexit itself is currently at the top of worldwide popularity for dictionary look-ups, and also in first place in the US, Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, and Spain. It features in the top searches in the UK too, but only in fourth place – presumably because the British public are more likely to know already what Brexit means than people using the dictionary in other countries.
Searches have remained steady since the beginning of 2016, and relatively low, but began to increase on the 20 June. The biggest spike, however, came on Friday 24 June – with around five times the number of pageviews for the Brexit entry than on the previous day. This suggests that the aftermath of the vote was triggering people around the world to investigate what Brexit meant, once the vote had revealed that it would happen. On 24 June, the most hits for Brexit came from India, followed by the UK, the US, and Canada.
Currently the most searched word in the UK (though not in the top ten for any of the other countries listed in our homepage trending box), democracy comes from the Greek dēmokratia, from demos, ‘the people’ + -kratia, ‘power, rule’.
Democracy always receives a notable number of searches each month, but increased substantially after the referendum. The increase started on the day of the vote, but reached its peak some days later on Sunday 26 June, and is currently the second most popular dictionary entry internationally.
Some of the terms used in discussions of the EU referendum may not be familiar to everybody participating or observing, not least the word referendum itself, which saw a sudden rise in searches on Friday 24 June and is the fourth most popular dictionary entry worldwide.
This might be presumed to be the international response as news of the result spread, but around half of the queries on 24 June came from within the UK – with the US, India, and Vietnam in the next positions. Referendum is borrowed from Latin, where it relates to the verb referre, ‘carry back’. It is called this because it is a political question which has been referred to the public for a decision.
One of the main arguments of the pro-Leave campaign was that the UK would be a sovereign nation if it left the European Union, and this appears to have led to an increase searches for the word sovereign which, if not drastic, is certainly notable. Spikes on 19 May and 9 June may relate respectively to an article about British sovereignty in The Telegraph and a speech by William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party.
As an adjective, sovereign simply means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power’ or, if said of a nation, ‘acting or done independently without outside interference’. It comes from the Old French soverain, based on the Latin super (‘above’). The change of spelling from soverain was due to association with the word reign, as the noun refers to a supreme ruler, especially a monarch.
The word plebiscite means ‘the direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question such as a change in the constitution’. It comes from the Latin plebs, pleb-, ‘the common people’ + scitum, ‘decree’ (from sciscere, ‘vote for’); the informal and derogatory term pleb for ‘an ordinary person’ shares this root, being a shortened form of plebeian (‘a member of the lower social classes’).
Plebiscite is currently in eighth place in popularity both in the UK and worldwide, reaching second place in Australia – where it is also influenced by discussions about a planned plebiscite on same-sex marriage in Australia. Indeed, much of the international discussion seems to be around this issue as well as Brexit, and it isn’t easy to disentangle the search results to see which is the more significant influencer.
Though it has fallen out of the top ten now, pyrrhic got as high as fourth on our most-searched words in the UK on Tuesday. A pyrrhic victory is one which is ‘won at too great a cost to have been worthwhile for the victor’, and is named after Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus in the third century BC. He invaded Italy in 280bc and defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279, but sustained heavy losses.
This increase in searches is probably due to the number of journalists and commentators who suggested that the referendum result might be considered a pyrrhic victory for the Leave campaign, and Boris Johnson in particular, such as a Guardian article on the day the result was announced.
Racism and xenophobia
A significant amount of the discussion of the referendum, before and after it took place, was around concerns about a rise in hate crimes and prejudice in the UK – which both sides of the campaign, of course, openly deplored. Xenophobia (meaning ‘dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries’, from the Greek xenos, meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘strange’) has seen a staggered but clear increase in searches from Monday 20 June onwards.
Racism is a very common search term on OxfordDictionaries.com, and while its appearance in our UK trending words may seem representative of the zeitgeist, the frequency of searches has actually changed very little over recent weeks.