A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
When did the current fad for crudely conjoined portmanteaus begin? Was it the ungainly moobs that started it all, taking the m from man and supplanting the b of boobs with it? The media delights in coining compound celebrity couples, making mutant nomenclatures, such as Kimye, Brangelina and Hiddleswift. In ‘yoofspeak’, this is called ‘shipping‘, a verb derived from relationship. And now this modern habit has entered political discourse and, disastrously, we all live in a Brexit-ridden world.
Once (how long ago it seems!) it was simply an unhappy marriage of British and exit, and, despite its inelegant etymology and sonorous infelicity, its meaning was fairly explicit. Brexit was born out of Grexit – the Greek exit from the EU anticipated if that nation were to default on its debt repayments. It didn’t and Grexit slipped from view. With the EU referendum, a simple in/out became overshadowed by the newly-minted Brexit, and its over-exposure by a media incapable of refraining itself from jumping on any passing hashtag fad.
Yet Brexit’s once-simple meaning is fast unravelling, as even those who wielded it with confidence seem unsure as to what its two syllables are supposed to convey. The Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to know such things, has further fogged the semantic sense by giving it a now-infamous self-referential definition: Brexit means Brexit. It’s as though Brexit itself were trying to wriggle out of meaning anything at all, unhappy at having been brought into the world, like Frankenstein’s monster looking for answers from its thoughtless creator. Brexit is exiting itself, self-sabotaging, divesting itself of lexical content and becoming so empty a signifier that it can mean all things to all people, which is to say, nothing at all.
‘Language is the house of being,’ Heidegger proposed, and we might wonder what being resides in words such as Brexit. A post-truth flexibility enabling permanent political evasion? Of course, Brexit is the latest in a long lineage of sophisms. There is the lexical deception of collateral damage, the smoke-and-mirror beguilement of asset for assassin. George Orwell, in his famous polemic against political language, Politics and the English Language (1946), condemned its use of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ to defend the indefensible.
Meaning, though, has always been precarious, as Alice found out when she wondered into Wonderland and met Humpty-Dumpty: ‘When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Naturally, Alice is disconcerted: can words really be made to mean ‘so many differnt things’? Humpty-Dumpty’s retort is that of all tyrants: ‘The question is which is to be master.’ A master-meaning, the one I mean it to mean; I, the one on high with all the power. The Guardian‘s cartoonist Steve Bell makes this point in today’s cartoon on Queen May’s regal raiments:
Nietszche was likewise mistrustful of the disconnect between word and thing: ‘What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.’ In his very accessible albeit nihilistic On Truth & Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873), he looks at these ‘arbitrary assignments’ and draws a rather damning conclusion:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.
So it will be with Brexit, which is already being ’embellished poetically and rhetorically’, already seeming ‘firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people’. And still the public and politicos plead, What does Brexit mean? And the only answer they hear is: it means what it means. C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s book The Meaning of Meaning should be exiting the shelves (shexiting?) like a Harry Potter off-cut in the coming weeks.
The painting is Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Five Portraits (1901-02).