The semantics and pragmatics of ‘Brexit means Brexit’

We have been tracking the use of the slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’ at neutralfooting. At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday we learnt a little more about its use though the Prime Minister who originally coined this soundbite.

The slogan is a tautology as I have said before. This means that from a semantic point of view it doesn’t add anything new to the common ground. However, that doesn’t stop politicians from using the slogan from a pragmatic point of view. Some insight into how the leaders of Britain’s two largest parties use this slogan and the pragmatic force they intend it to convey were given in an exchange at PMQs.

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was the first to reference the sentence in his question in the House of Commons. He made light of the use of the slogan and mocked Theresa May for her use of it (lines 01-02). This brought laughter (line 03) from his own back benches. He followed this up with more sarcasm in lines 08-09 indicating that he didn’t feel the phrase meant anything. Corbyn was thus equating the pragmatic force of the utterance with the semantic meaning (i.e. meaningless).

Jeremy Corbyn
01: I thought for a moment the er prime minister
02: was going to say brexit means brexit again
03:    ((laughter))
04: erm
05: there are others er
06:    ((general noise))
07:    (5.0)((Corbyn gestures to PM))
08: I’m sure (.) I’m sure she’ll tell us one day
09: what it actually means erm
...

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Theresa May

Theresa May indicated however how she believes the slogan should be interpreted. She took it to mean that the government is listening to the people (lines 16-17). That the slogan means Britain will leave the EU (line 22) and that no one should be able to thwart that ambition (line 25). In other words, ‘Brexit’ can only mean one thing (leave the EU) and cannot mean something else short of this (line 27).

Theresa May
10: the er the leader of the opposition
11: er (.) tries to poke fun at the phrase of
12: brexit means brexit
13: but the whole point is this
14:    (6.0)
15: brexit
16: it’s this government that is listening
17: to the voice of the British people
18:    ((cheers of approval)
19:    (4.0)
20: what the er (1.0)
21: brexit means brexit
22: that means we’re coming out of the European Union
23:    ((general noise))
24: what the right honourable gentleman tries to be doing
25: is frustrating the will of the British people
26: by saying that
27: brexit means something completely different
...

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Semantics and Pragmatics

So we have two politicians using the same slogan in pragmatically different ways, one to poke fun at, and mock, their opponent; trivialising its use. The other to suggest that Brexit has to happen and no one should try to argue otherwise.

This illustrates nicely the division between semantics and pragmatics in linguistic analysis. Semantics refers to the internal meaning of sentences whereas pragmatics refers to their use in context and the intention behind them.

‘Brexit means Brexit’ Semantic Pragmatic force
Jeremy Corbyn tautology mockery, trivialisation
Theresa May tautology listen to the people, don’t try and frustrate the popular mandate

Unfortunately for Theresa May, one of her own ministers, Mark Garnier, recently adopted the Corbyn interpretation of the slogan. He said that he ‘would not use the PM’s popular soundbite for “obvious reasons” as “it doesn’t give that much clarity”’ (Huffington Post 26/10/2016).


PMQs, House of Commons, 26th October 2016
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