Two syllables

I've been trying to remember the first time I heard the word Brexit. Back then, whenever it was, I saw it as just another clever, but at the same time silly, linguistic invention that was doing the rounds of social media. Something that would never actually happen, or even be seriously thought about.

But being able to shorten the awkward and boring expression "Britain leaving the European Union" to a simple two-syllable word meant that people could talk about it more. Some say that the more you talk about something the more you believe in it. And the more you believe in something the more real it becomes.

Then someone had the even sillier idea of calling a referendum, making that short two-syllable word something that was not only easy to say, but also an idea that required an opinion. And those who best managed to use that word in combination with other convincing expressions won. The others didn't have an exciting, natty little term to make "staying where we are" sound half as attractive.

Before the referendum, when Brexit was just a word whose seductive powers were underestimated, I was asked my opinion. I, like many, failed to see the potential of those two syllables to throw a country and a continent into turmoil. Even if the UK did decide to leave the EU, I suggested, it would just be like Norway. The biggest hassle would be to change the smallprint of all the rules, regulations and phone tariffs, that say "EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland etc." to include the UK in the extras list. What was all the fuss about?

But Brexit wasn't going to do things by halves. It promised a clean and prosperous break from an annoying, expensive EU, and voters were wooed. Simple as that. Two syllables are easy to digest.

Now, if those same voters could have seen the extent of the contingency plans now being hastily drawn up around the UK and Europe, and the sheer volume of complications those two little syllables could be about to cause, then perhaps they would have thought twice.

Perhaps if they had known that the fate of their little word depended on 650 noisy folk crammed onto green benches reaching an agreement on an agreement, they would have thought twice.

If they had known that after more than two years of negotiations those two little syllables might still mean that everybody needs to put on a crash helmet and close their eyes on 29 March, some may have changed their vote. Others may have been encouraged to campaign harder in favour of staying put.

I don't know who first put Britain and exit together and came up with Brexit, but I wonder if they imagined where it would lead.