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Mind your language

No one is safe from ‘post-Brexit’

It’s not too bad as an adjective, but it still sounds weird to me post-verb

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

Staring at a brown envelope, my husband said: ‘I’ll deal with that post-breakfast,’ and then laughed as though he had made a joke. In his mind it was a play on words, the unspoken words being post-Brexit. It is true that no one is safe from that phrase these days. As a compound adjective, it’s not so bad: post-Brexit prosperity. As an adverb, it sounds awkward to me: prices rising post-Brexit.

The word Brexit itself was established as more than a passing vogue only after the referendum, I think. It had been invented in 2012, on the pattern of the portmanteau word Grexit ‘Greek exit’, and while the prospect of Greece falling out of the EU was still a live topic, Brexit was far less used, partly because it sounded too much like Grexit for easy comprehension.


Post- has been a plaything for centuries of poets and their kind. In a letter from 1733, Alexander Pope wrote of something being ‘labour’d, corrected, præcommended and post-disapprov’d’. John Donne, 100 years earlier, had formed the term post-cribrated (meaning ‘sieved again’) on the conscious model of a 15th-century book by Nicholas of Cusa called Cribratio Alchorani or Sifting the Koran. So he wrote in a letter of his having ‘cribrated, re-cribrated, and post-cribrated’ a sermon of his. (That phrase of his is, by the way an example in English of a post-genitive, as in a friend of my sister’s.) Thomas Fuller, the biographer, also played with post-, referring in the post-Restoration period to people who ‘instead of preventing, postvide against dangers’.

Anyway, post-Brexit as an adjective (formed from the preposition post qualifying an adjective or noun) follows the fertile pattern of post-Sputnik, post-Pill, post-Aids. Even in 1791, William Cowper had declared ‘my post-breakfast time must be given to poetry’. But he wasn’t making a hilarious joke, like my husband.

In the 20th century it was as natural to speak of post-apartheid South Africa as it was to talk of a post-lunch siesta. But the corresponding adverbs still seemed odd to my ears: ‘a slight increase post-1940’ or the mention in Wisden in 1992 of wickets that ‘fall post-lunch’. If you notice any post-Brexit developments in language, please keep me posted.


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