Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how William Shakespeare, the King of Word-Invention, provides us with the language to describe Brexit
I learned a terrific new French word recently. I like learning new words. Some new words are awful, like Brexit, which did not exist even a few years ago, and now is one of the most used words in the national and international conversation. Le Brexit. Der Brexit. El Brexit. Il Brexit.
The King of Word-Invention, as of so much else in the creative space, was William Shakespeare. A substantial academic body devotes itself to the assessment of the many hundreds of words and phrases first used in his plays. Some we use and hear all the time, and those which are relevant to the Brexit story are marked in bold and italics below.
Advertising was a Shakespeare word, and one day surely someone will write a play about that big red bus advertising the monumental, obscene, premeditated, baseless, bare-faced lie with which the bandits of Brexit hurried around the country.
Countless times they repeated it, knowing it to be eminently marketable as they aroused, and then remorselessly pandered to, the useful discontent of a vulnerable people. Yes you, Johnson, and you, Gove; a revolting blusterer and a sanctimonious pale-faced gossip posing as Statesmen; cold-blooded in the green-eyed savagery they turned on their own flawed but generous champion, Mr Cameron, then, without blushing, praising him when the torture and assassination were done, now playing the same cruel-hearted, blood-stained game with Mrs May. Obsequiously backing her one moment, stealthy and equivocal rivals the next.
With what mortifying amazement would the Bard view the dwindle of our once Olympian, majestic power. He would shudder to see Britain metamorphize to this, his birthplace now a laughing stock, its politics besmirched by ill-tempered silliness.
Gone the excitement, instead gloomy, jaded decline and distracted neglect, investment in the future a far-off bet. In Mrs May, a lonely leader, her dialogue and courtship skills frugal, her critics deafening. Off to the summit she goes, to negotiate, to compromise, to secure this laughable, worthless, unreal ‘deal,’ with her leaky, ungoverned team, in their addiction to squabble, seeming not to know arse from elbow.
My Shakespearean rant is over, but the fight to stop this madcap Brexit is not. And so to my new French word. Décolérer.
It is definitely a new one, because if you put it into Google Translate, it comes up as décolérer in English. If you put in il ne faut pas décolérer, it is translated as ‘we must not decolorize’, (yuk), and if you put il ne faut pas decolerer without accents on the first and second Es, you get ‘you must not take off’. (This confusion, by the way, is why we will always need people in the era of robotics.)
It is definitely a French word too, or at least it was from a French person I heard it, one who came to one of the many meetings I have done recently to argue against Brexit and at which (including on the south coast on the day of the so-called ‘breakthrough deal’) I continue to get almost universal pessimism about Brexit from the general public, and universal disrespect for May and her team. This French woman was married to a Brit, had kids in English schools, and was ranting (with thanks to Shakespeare again) and lamenting (ditto) the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the government’s handling of the negotiations.
Il ne faut pas décolérer, she said, urging me to keep fighting.
Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire, ‘décolérer’? I asked. What does décolérer mean?
Il faut rester en colère, she replied. You must stay angry.
Indeed we must. Indeed I will. There is an awful lot to be angry about. Not just the lies of the campaign, but those since, including David Davis living for a year the lie that the government was properly assessing the impact of Brexit; the scandalous incompetence exposed by the fact no such assessments were actually being done.
We should stay angry about the costs we were told would not be incurred, which are now taking funds from things like schools and hospitals; the chaos that has emerged from the fact – again scandalous, horrifically incompetent, but now confirmed by the Chancellor – that there literally is no agreed Cabinet strategy on what Brexit they want; the chaos and uncertainty born of ministers insisting trade deals would be easily done when it is becoming clearer and clearer how far that too is from the truth; that far from shedding red tape, we will be strangling ourselves in more. Cost, chaos, incompetence, all adding up to a wretched story of national decline.
We have to stay angry with Labour’s leaders too, for their failure to fight in the referendum campaign, their failure to stand up properly against May’s governing only for the 52% who voted Leave, their refusal to call out Brexit for what it is, a national calamity.
We should be angry that both main parties seem to be kicking very large cans down the road, and angry with a media which seems to go along with it without much in the way of impartial (the great WS again) scrutiny. As for May claiming there has been an outbreak of optimism since her fast-unravelling ‘breakthrough deal’, this is but the latest stage of delusion leading decision-making.
What I like most about the word décolérer, and indeed its untranslatability, is that it means more than ‘to stay angry’.
It means you must make an active choice to stop being angry. You must ‘de-anger’. Perhaps this is why there is no translation. We let our anger go more readily than the French. Part of the Brexiteers’ strategy is to build a sense of fatalism so that no matter the anger at the start of the process, it dissipates amid the sense of inevitability that what a man at my meeting on deal day described as ‘this ghastly tragedy’ has to unfold to its pre-scripted, horrific outcome, whatever the cost and the consequences.
So repeat after me …
Je ne décolére pas
Tu ne décoléres pas
Il/elle ne décolére pas
Nous ne décolérons pas
Vous ne décolérez pas
Ils/elles ne décolerent pas.
Now, moving to everyday phrases invented by Shakespeare, I am well aware that what’s done is done (Macbeth) but for goodness’ sake (Henry VIII) let’s fight till the last gasp (Henry VI, Part I), as ’tis high time (The Comedy of Errors) we saw the bandit Johnson hoist with his own petard (Hamlet), namely his improbable fiction (Twelfth Night) and we turn the wheel full circle (King Lear) and say good riddance (Troilus and Cressida) to Brexit.
And as you hear the Brextremists burble on, do remember that all that glitters is not gold and truth will out (both from The Merchant of Venice).
So, Once more into the breach (Henry V) and ne décolérons pas.
La bataille n’est pas finie. On peut toujours arrêter ce Brexit épouvantable… (Google Translate if you must, but hopefully you get the gist without it.)
Je ne décolére pas.