Brexit and Jarndyce

Tuesday, 14 November, 2017

Like Jarndyce and Jarndyce the case of Brexit and Brexit drones on and on and on. Will it conclude with the British electorate being forced to the polls for an other referendum? Two referendums should do it, unless there’s a dispute about the correct English plural form of the word, that is. The singular, by the way, is a variant of the Latin word referre ‘to refer’ and it means ‘a thing that must be referred to the people’. And some things, such as the choice between freedom and enslavement, must be referred to the people.

This vexed question made news in June 1988, during a House of Commons debate, when the late Alan Clark, Tory MP for Kensington and Chelsea, asked for a ruling on the matter. He said he was prompted to do so because he had previously been called to order for “using the language of the common market.” His point, he said, was that he had “heard on many occasions colleagues refer to referendums — which is an exceedingly ugly term.” Clark, who was fond of the gerundive, wanted to know whether the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, would “prefer us to continue to use the Latin word, or whether you have no objection to the continued Anglicisation of this term.” Madam Speaker replied:

“I do notice on the Public Bill List that the word referendums for Scotland and Wales is used there. The word referendum was first used in English 150 years ago, according to the Oxford English dictionary which I’ve just been able to refer to. So I imagine after 150 years the House will be quite used to it now. I think the plural is a matter of taste but I’ve always preferred the use of the English language to any Latin form if that is of some guidance.”

Now’s the time to get agreement on the plural form of ‘referendum’ because we’re going to need it.


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