Brexit: Dirty, Spicy or Hairy? Why Metaphors Matter

By Britta Brugman | reading time: 6 minutes

Even for me as a teacher and researcher in political science, explaining world politics to students is often a challenge. The main reason is that many political issues and events are also difficult to understand. Fortunately, politicians often use metaphors that help me explain the political world to my students better. The metaphors I choose to use, however, considerably influence how my students understand the political issues and events under discussion.

Metaphors are figures of speech that define one concept in terms of another concept. In politics, metaphors work by connecting political concepts to non-political concepts. Political debates that are often explained metaphorically are EU debates. For instance, the most common way to discuss Brexit is by referring to a “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit”. Yet, what does it mean when Brexit is described as “dirty”, “spicy” or “hairy?

Hard or soft Brexit

The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” compare the negotiations between the EU and UK to the firmness of objects like rocks or pillows. They define how much the EU and the UK are prepared to compromise on issues such as UK’s access to the EU’s internal market. A “hard Brexit” implies firm positions of both parties and therefore a total divorce of the UK from the EU. In contrast, a “soft Brexit” implies that both parties will maintain as close a relationship as possible.

Clean or dirty Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May introduced alternative metaphors to the Brexit debate. She uses the metaphor “clean Brexit” to describe the UK’s strategy in the Brexit negotiations. Political opponents within the EU have responded that a “dirty Brexit” may instead be more likely. The words clean and dirty generally mean the degree to which objects or places are cleaned and organised. By using the metaphor “clean Brexit” Theresa May emphasises a “clean break” from the EU, meaning that the UK will leave quickly and completely. A “dirty Brexit” rather entails no agreement after months of deliberation.

Nevertheless, there are multiple interpretations of the metaphors “clean Brexit” and “dirty Brexit” possible. They may for example also encourage people to think about the integrity of the Brexit negotiations. A “clean Brexit” would imply that the EU and UK take their time to negotiate a precise, comprehensive and mutually beneficial deal. A “dirty Brexit” may indicate hasty and unfounded judgements. The interpretation of these metaphors thus depends on the context in which they are used and the politicians who use them. 

Spicy or mild Brexit

In one of their reports, the European Commission has spoken about a “mild Brexit” scenario, which would be the opposite of a “spicy Brexit”. The words mild and spicy usually indicate whether or not food has a strong hot flavour. In the context of Brexit, one of the most straightforward interpretations is that the words illustrate the degree of consensus between the two parties about important decisions. A “spicy Brexit” is for instance characterised by increased tension between politicians, while in a “mild Brexit” scenario there may not be as much political conflict.

Hairy or shaven Brexit

Finally, Boris Johnson has even warned the UK public for the possibility of a “hairy Brexit”. The positive equivalent of this metaphor would be something like a “shaven Brexit”. In ordinary language, the words hairy and shaven indicate the amount of hair on a body. However, with regard to Brexit, Johnson meant to stress the perceived complexity of the negotiations between the EU and UK. Whereas a “hairy Brexit” is complex and potentially dangerous in terms of the political and economic implications, a “shaven Brexit” may simply run relatively smoothly.

Metaphorical reasoning

Taken together, these examples show how different metaphors can influence our understanding of political issues and events differently. The metaphors “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit” limit our understanding of Brexit to what outcomes the EU and UK want to achieve. At the same time, metaphors like “dirty Brexit”, “spicy Brexit” and “hairy Brexit” focus on the nature of the negotiations (integrity, political conflict, complexity). These metaphors each emphasise a different aspect of Brexit, which means that they can only provide a complete picture of the political dynamics of Brexit when they are used in combination.

Previous research shows that the degree in which metaphors influence our understanding of politics depends on multiple factors. My own research also focuses on examining when political metaphors are most persuasive. One factor that already seems to be important is the complexity of the topic. The more a political topic is difficult to understand, the more likely people are to rely on metaphors to understand political debates. Since many political issues and events are considerably complex to begin with, metaphors can play a crucial role in our political reasoning.

Thus, explaining world politics to my students becomes easier by using metaphors but it is important to be aware of how these metaphors may influence their understanding of political issues and events. Because each metaphor uses a different non-political concept as the basis for comparison, each metaphor emphasises different aspects of the political concepts under discussion. Therefore, to do justice to the complexity of today’s political world, a diverse set of metaphors is necessary to make my students adequately understand world politics.


Britta Brugman is a PhD candidate in the department of Political Science & Public Administration. Her research focuses on ‘the effects of metaphorical frames on voters’ political attitudes‘.

References

Brugman, B. C., Burgers, C., & Steen, G. J. (2017). Recategorizing political frames: A systematic review of metaphorical framing in experiments on political communication. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(2), 181-197. doi:10.1080/23808985.2017.1312481

Burgers, C., Konijn, E. A., & Steen, G. J. (2016). Figurative Framing: Shaping public discourse through metaphor, hyperbole and irony. Communication Theory, 26(4), 410–430. doi:10.1111/comt.12096

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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