Brexit. I’m sure you must have heard about Brexit at some point in the last four years, and the UK finally left the EU on January 1st 2021. I often get asked about Brexit by English students and foreign friends, and one of the biggest challenges people face is the vocabulary. It can be complicated, confusing, and full of political and economic jargon! So on this episode, I will introduce some of the key vocabulary that could help you to understand and read about Brexit!

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Departure (n) – the act leaving somewhere, or an occasion when this happens

Our departure was delayed because of bad weather 

Union (n) – the act or the state of being joined together

The debate on European political and monetary union continues

To coin (v) – to invent a new word or expression, or to use one in a particular way for the first time

Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power”

Divisive (adj) – used to describe something that causes great and sometimes unfriendly disagreement within a group of people

The Vietnam war was an extremely divisive issue in the US

To trigger (v) –  to cause something to start

Some people find that certain food trigger their headaches

To reach (v) – to achieve something after careful thought or discussion

After hours of discussion, the committee finally reached a decision

Tariff (n) – a charge for services or on goods entering a country 

The US has imposed new tariffs on chocolate from Brazil

Regulation (n) – an official rule or the act of controlling something

New safety regulations have been brought in

contention (n) – the disagreement that results from opposing arguments

There’s a lot of contention about that issue – for every person firmly in favour, there’s someone fiercely against it

As we enter 2021, we are also entering a new period of history for the UK! From the 1st of January, the UK has completed its departure from the European Union. Although we technically left 11 months ago, the agreement covering the UK’s departure only lasted until the end of 2020. It has been four years since the UK voted for Brexit, although it feels longer. In that time the UK has had 2 general elections, 3 different prime ministers, and thousands of arguments about what life without the EU should be like! 

Whatever country you are in, you probably heard about the UK leaving the EU. It has been an incredibly complicated situation, but if you are someone interested in living or working in the UK it is something you probably should learn more about. Even if you don’t plan to visit the UK anytime soon, it is actually an interesting topic to read about or study! Even after 4 years, Brexit is still a topic people get very passionate about on both sides of the argument. Still now I have facebook friends with EU flags on their profile pictures! So it is important to be cautious and careful when you bring up this topic in conversation with British people. Therefore, I’m going to give you a short Brexit dictionary full of some of the key terms and main vocabulary used when talking about Brexit. Hopefully, these terms will make understanding and reading about brexit much easier!


Let’s start off with a few of the simplest, but most important, pieces of vocabulary. Without the European Union (or EU for short) there would be no Brexit. The EU is an economic and political union of 27 European countries. It operates a single market; this might sound confusing but it basically means that people, goods, money, investments, companies, services, and much more, are allowed to move freely between all member countries. I’ll talk more about this later!  A Spanish company can sell its products in Ireland with no extra restrictions, or an Italian student can study in Germany without a visa! Most people know this about the EU, but there are some things that people are normally unaware of. For instance, the EU was originally set up to prevent Germany and France from going to war again (which they had done many times in the past). The EU was originally known as the European Coal and Steel Community, and the UK joined in 1973. In addition, not all European countries are members of the EU. Apart from the UK, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway are examples of non-EU members.


Brexit is a combination of the world Britain and Exit. It is short for Britain exiting the European Union. The word is now commonly used by newspapers, TV shows, and even in other languages. The term Brexit was actually inspired by “Grexit” which was used in 2012 to talk about the potential for Greece to leave the Eurozone. Brexit has also inspired other words – a popular example in 2020 was Megxit which referred to Megan Markle and Prince Harry leaving the British Royal Family. Ignoring the meaning of Brexit, it is actually an interesting type of word that you should be aware of anyway. It is a portmanteau. A portmanteau is a blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined into a new word, as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog, or motel, from motor and hotel. Can you think of any other portmanteaus? 


I might have talked about referendums in an earlier episode, but just in case I’ll explain again here. A referendum is a vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on a particular proposal, and can have nationwide or local forms. Some countries use referendums to understand their citizens beliefs on a certain (often very important or divisive) issue. In 2014, Scotland held a referendum to decide whether they would stay part of the UK (they voted to stay). The EU referendum was a national vote in the UK held on 23 June 2016 to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. The leave campaign won by 52% to 48%.

So now let’s look at some of the more specific and technical terms often used when talking about Brexit!


Article 50 is part of an EU treaty that explains how a member country can leave the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 in 2017 and therefore started the formal process of the UK leaving the EU! However, it was not an instant departure. From being triggered in March 2017, the UK didn’t leave the EU until January 2020, and wasn’t completely outside of EU commitments until 2021! This article would also be used if any other country decides to leave in the future.


“No deal” is one of the most common terms in the British media over the last 4 years (especially because the meaning has changed in that time). No deal originally meant the UK leaving the EU without agreeing anything about the terms on which that was going to happen. “No deal” referred to the possibility that the UK would leave without deciding on this relationship. The UK and EU signed a withdrawal agreement which covered how much money the UK would pay the EU, details of the transition period, citizen’s rights and the arrangements to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as open as possible! However, since a withdrawal agreement was eventually reached, the meaning of “no deal” changed. Instead, it referred to the UK getting to the end of 2020 without agreeing a deal on its future trading relationship with the EU. When the UK voted to leave the EU, there was no option to vote for what kind of relationship to have afterwards. Did the UK want to have a close relationship with the EU like Norway? Or a relationship like Canada? Or no relationship at all? At the last minute, a deal was reached and “no deal” was avoided!


The transition period was the time between the UK leaving the EU in January 2020 and the end of the year of the 31 December 2020. During that time period, everything stayed the same so the UK and EU could negotiate their future relationship. The transition period ended last week! 


The EU is built on the idea of four freedoms. These freedoms are the free movement of goods, capital, services and people in the EU’s single market. As a member of the EU you are free to travel, work, start businesses, move money, sell and buy products, and trade without restrictions (or with the same restrictions as every other EU citizen/member country)

Much of the recent Brexit language has been connected to trade, I think its important to briefly describe some trade terms., However, check out episode… if you want some more detailed discussions about economics and trade!


A free trade agreement is a deal between countries to reduce, or even sometimes eliminate, trade barriers or restrictions. Barriers and restrictions could include import taxes and tariffs, quotas (limits on the amounts of things that may be imported) and differing regulations on things such as safety or hygiene or labelling. 


The single market is a system that enables goods, services, people, and money to move freely between all 27 EU member states, as well as Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Countries in the single market also have many common rules and standards. The single market goes beyond a free trade agreement because as well as eliminating tariffs, quotas or taxes on trade, it also includes the four freedoms I mentioned earlier! There are also EU-wide regulations covering numerous industries and products such as food quality, health and safety, and working hours. It is an attempt to make “a level playing field” (this will be explained later) and does not happen in a Free Trade agreement. However, the single market is one of the reasons people dislike the EU. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control immigration in the single market, you have to pay towards the EU budget (and rich countries like the UK have to pay more), and you have to accept the power of the European Court of Justice (which can sometimes disagree with your own country’s law)! The UK is no longer in the single market! 


The EU actually goes further than a Single Market. They have what is known as a Customs Union! You have probably heard the term customs if you have ever travelled abroad. When you travel, you need to write a customs declaration if you are bringing expensive goods. Sometimes, you might be charged extra money if you bring too much of an item, or too expensive an item! For instance, I like whiskey, but I was only allowed to bring one tariff-free bottle of whisky into the UK from Japan. If I had brought 2 bottles here I would have been charged extra! This is not a problem in the EU because they have a customs union!! It is an agreement not to charge taxes or tariffs on things coming from other EU countries, and to charge the same tariffs as each other on things coming from outside the EU. Turkey is part of a customs union with the EU but not in the single market. The UK is also no longer in the customs union!


If countries don’t have a free-trade agreement, they usually have to trade with other countries under rules set by the World Trade Organization. Each country sets tariffs, or taxes, on goods entering. For example, non-EU cars entering the EU are charged a 10% tax while some foods are taxed over 40%! Under WTO rules, if the UK chose to put no tariffs on goods from the EU, it must also have had no tariffs on goods from every WTO member. It would need a Trade agreement with the EU to offer different terms


What does fishing have to do with Brexit? Well, it turns out a lot! In fact, fishing is one of the major areas of contention between the UK and the EU. As an island country, the UK has traditionally owned a large amount of water as well as the right to fish there. During Brexit negotiations, the UK sought to regain control of the waters instead of allowing EU fisherman equal access, while the EU sought to make sure that their fishermen could continue working in UK territory! Fishing is actually a major issue in other parts of the world, not just Europe! 


The “level playing field” is a set of rules that EU countries need to follow. The rules cover issues including worker’s rights, aid, and business competition. The rules are designed so that no EU country has an unfair advantage over another! Essentially, a country cannot give companies from its own country special help or introduce special taxation to undercut another member. One of the major debates in the Brexit negotiation was about the “ level playing field.” The EU, in particular, was worried the UK would reduce corporation taxes and provide subsidies to UK businesses.


The Schengen area is made up of 26 European states that have removed passport controls at their borders so people can travel freely. I travelled to Belgium by bus a few years ago, and there was no sign of the border between France and Belgium. No border guards, passport patrols, or anything. This is because of the Schengen area! Some European Union members are not in the Schengen area, while some countries that are not members of the EU, like Norway and Iceland, are in the Schengen area. The UK has never been in the Schengen area!

Finally, I want to introduce two slang terms used to describe supporters and opponents of Brexit!


A remoaner is a derogatory (so not very nice) term meaning a person who complains about Britain leaving the European Union and the outcome of the Brexit referendum. It is actually another portmanteau (like the ones I mentioned earlier) made from the words remain and moan. To moan means to complain about something you don’t like but can’t change. On the other hand, a brexiteer is short for those who are in favour of Brexit!


This episode has had a lot of new vocabulary, and you might think it has come too late! The UK has now left the EU, right? That doesn’t mean it will stop being a news story! There will be reviews and assessments made over the next few years. Books will be written, and maybe even TV shows and documentaries made about Brexit. If the UK is actually successful, then maybe other EU members might also look to “exit.” If we see a  French “Frexit”, Italian “Italeave”, or Portuguese “Departugal,” this vocabulary might come in useful! (I’m not saying any of these countries will leave the EU, but I liked the portmanteau!) However countries like Poland and Hungary have governments that do not seem to respect all of the freedoms EU members should respect. There is a chance more countries could leave. At the same time, there is a chance that in our lifetimes the UK could try to re-join! Or negotiate a new relationship! Who knows? Other parts of the world might even try to start their own agreements and trade relationships, so these terms are useful in those contexts too!!

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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