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The power of words

Did Brexit win because the word sounded better than Remain? An argument in the referendum wash-up is that ‘Brexit’ was snappy and active, while ‘Remain’ was dour and static.

Brexit supporters were Brexiteers – adventurous, swashbuckling. Those supporting staying were Remainers – boring and against change.

Words are critical to persuasion. They can frame a subject to be seen a certain way, and even set the basis for an argument.

The mistake in the analysis and use of words is to believe that they have universally similar meanings and power of persuasion. fMRI scans of word association in brains find words clump differently. In one mind the word “prisoner” could be found next to “scumbag”. In another person it could be grouped with “unjust”.

The point of word selection for public relations battles is not to persuade someone who doesn’t agree, but to help those who are likely to agree to find a justification for their choice, and feel good about it.

Brexit and Remain derived their power and meaning from what people were already inclined to associate with them. The advantage for Brexit was that it was a new word that could have new associations made. Brexit won – because of, and despite, what it meant.

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