The language imperative

If you’re in Britain these days, one of the buzzwords is referendum.

Whether you want a referendum, a plebiscite or to get on with Brexit, one thing is unavoidable: you can’t get away from Latin. There’s no Article 50 activating the removal of English from the latinate cultural community.

No amount of political convolution will ever separate English culture and language from its lifelong membership in the community of Latin language. If all other international memberships fail, at least Britain will preserve this one.

The name Britain, from Briton, is grounded in Latin. The exit in Brexit is the Latin exitus which goes out (ex-ire) of its way to avoid the real issues, as a Roman epic poet would have said.

Exit Brexit, enter referendum. That’s also a Latin word, short for referendum populo est – to be carried back (or referred, same root) to the people, for people’s consultation. Extracting a second Brexit referendum from the mess of British politics may be as difficult as remembering the technical term for the Latin referendum construction: the ‘second periphrastic conjugation’. Perhaps we can have a referendum to stop calling it that.

If you don’t want a referendum, perhaps you might welcome a plebiscite. A plebiscite tastes like referendum, but has a different root. There’s no Article 50, remember, and plebiscite also comes from Latin. The word plebiscitum means a decree (scitum) of the people (plebs). Etymologically speaking, if a referendum goes ahead, you end up with a plebiscite. First the referral, then the result.

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