Pronouncing Brexit

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John Oliver on Last Week Tonight recently noted that "Brexit sounds like a shitty granola bar you buy at the airport":

He also presented a suitably British version of the EU's "Ode to Joy" anthem:

But what most interested me about the segment was a clip of various American broadcasters pronouncing Brexit uniformly as ['brɛg.zɪt]:

This took me aback at first, because I've always pronounced it (in my head, I don't think I've ever said it out loud) as ['brɛk.sɪt], as John Oliver does:

Aside from showing that I don't watch TV news much, this suggests that I've modeled my mental pronunciation of Brexit on words like saxon, where I have [ks] for "x", rather than on its portmanteau source exit, which I pronounce like many Americans as ['ɛg.zɪt], rather than like most Britishes as ['ɛk.sɪt].

I might also have been influenced by memories of the sound of Grexit, where influence from the 'k' in Greek might have helped promote ['grɛk.sɪt] rather than ['grɛg.zɪt].

But ['brɛg.zɪt] sounds much more like a real exit, at least to American ears.


  1. Phillip Minden said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Yes, that struck me, and the rhyming of 'matter' with 'letter' of that Austrian chap. German speakers like to make a/e puns and native speakers then laugh, find it a bit off without knowing why, wonder why they've never thought of that pun and go on thinking of something else.

  2. Anthony Schmidt said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    I noticed the same thing last night. As an American, I pronounce it as ['brɛk.sɪt] as Oliver does. I also feel I put more stress on the second syllable, which may explain my pronunciation of the first.

  3. Jan Freeman said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 7:14 am

    I noticed the same thing. I think my pronunciation of "exit" may go both ways, but I clearly had been saying ['brɛk.sɪt] in my head. (And aloud, I think — I'm in England, so there's no way to avoid saying it.)

  4. Joseph F Foster said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    As a Southern American, I pronounce it [si ′se šņ], and urge all Y'all in the UK to to invoke and effect it while Y'all still can.

  5. Yuval said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 7:48 am

    I've been biased by the spelling this gets in Hebrew as ברקסיט, suggesting the /ks/ pronunciation. "X" is usually transcribed thus (influenced by Greek I guess), but oddly enough, a startup company being bought by a larger corporation (usually in a successful context) performs an אקזיט, suggesting /ekzit/ and normally pronounced /egzit/. The inconclusive connotation in the UK case must have aided this dissonance.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 8:20 am

    I would have told you that my pronunciation of "exit" had /ks/ rather than /gz/ but now that I reflect on the question (and of course self-consciousness about ones pronunciation itself may distort the data . . .) I suspect it may vary. I think I am more likely to go unvoiced when focusing on the word in isolation (as in literally answering "how do you pronounce the word spelled E-X-I-T?") or "stressing" it in a contextual prosodic fashion (e.g. "You're from New Jersey? Which exit?" By contrast, I think the voiced variant may be more likely in my speech when it's "unstressed" in the sense of being just one word somewhere in the middle of a sentence which isn't the focal point of the sentence. For all I know I was exposed to a hypercorrected spelling pronunciation by some prescriptivist teacher early in life and half-internalized the prescription? Anyway, if I'm right about this, it's the unvoiced version that would carry over by analogy to "Brexit" since it's an unfamiliar word which is thus going to get more focus and contextual "stress" than a generic word that's fully assimilated into my lexicon. And that is in fact how I (in my head) pronounce "Brexit."

  7. languagehat said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 8:29 am

    I say ['brɛk.sɪt] as well, and I think the "memories of the sound of Grexit" explanation is spot-on; if not for that factor, I might well say ['brɛg.zɪt] to match "exit."

  8. DWalker said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    myl, I'm an American, and I don't believe you that "most Americans" pronounce Exit as "eggzit". I have always heard "eksit", and I have lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas (Houston and Dallas both), Northern California, and both ends of New Mexico. :-)

    [(myl) I'm somewhat skeptical of what people think they hear, especially when spelling-related expectations are involved. Here's a random bit from "Dallas Transit van slams into car on exit ramp", CBS News 7/6/2012:

    I hear similar things in the LDC's conversational telephone collections, in audiobook recordings, etc. [ks] is sometimes there but not very often. Can you point to some evidence other than your memory of what you believe that you heard?

    Update — after running some errands, I looked at a larger sample, in which I see both forms about equally often, along with some cases where it's hard to tell. It would be worth doing a larger study.]

  9. Michael said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    I think if you listen carefully, you'll find that your samples are not quite uniform, or even consistent, in their pronunciations. That last voice, for example, seems to use the "g" sound on his first and third iterations, and is closer to "ks" in the second and especially the fourth. The other voices often seem to offer a sort of uncertain combination of the two sounds.
    Incidentally, I'm also an American who (thinks he) says "Eksit," although I have certainly noticed other Americans saying "Eggsit" and would agree that there's a "g" sound in most of the iterations here.

    [(myl) I agree that the distinction is not a sharp one, and in particular the fricative in the medial cluster is usually mostly voiceless (though that's true for most /z/ in American English).

    But still. My first reaction was that I myself say ['ɛk.sɪt], until I actually tried saying it.

  10. Mara K said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    I'm from southern Illinois and say egzit, Gregzit, and Bregzit. The other pronunciation didn't even occur to me–though in the context of Hebrew it makes more sense.

  11. Phillip Minden said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    Prof. Wells (LPD3) has it with: "Preference polls, British English: ˈeks- 55%, ˈeɡz- 45%; American English: ˈeks- 48%, ˈeɡz- 52%."

    My uneducated guess would have been that nearly all BrE speakers have ks, and -gz- sounds at least as American to me as -ks-, so I at least I wouldn't have been all that wrong on the latter. Unfortunately, the dictionary has no details about age groups for this word, let alone regional differences and the like.

  12. BillR said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    I'm a native American English speaker, grew up in the Midwest, transplanted to NE 40 years ago. Like J W Brewer, I vary my pronunciation depending on context. I don't recall having ever had occasion to say either out loud, but in my mind's ear as I read the words, both Brexit and Grexit have been unvoiced. I also was struck by the voiced version on Oliver's show.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    @ Joseph F Foster. Why not [sik ′se šņ]? Where'd the k sound go?

  14. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Nevermind. Confusing two similar words.

  15. ardj said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    Dammit, this is our trauma, and we'll call it what we want. Of course if you yanks want to pull out of Britain after Thursday, you can describe that flight any way you like.After all withdrawal would just show that the Millwall football fan persuasion has taken over: nobody loves us and we don't care.

  16. Stephen said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

    Only loosely related but I have come across a, very, few uses of Brexodus, e.g.

    which would have avoided this particular problem.

  17. Thomas Rees said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    I thought [ˈɛgzɪt] was TV-speak like [kəngrædʒʊˈleɪʃn] or [beɪˈʒɪŋ] – or [ɹaʊt], for that matter. I lived most of my life within steps of Route 66, and was in my thirties when I noticed most people weren’t saying [ɹuːt] like me (and Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry).

  18. DWalker said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    myl: "Can you point to some evidence other than your memory of what you believe that you heard?"

    No. :-) Maybe the spelling is coloring my perception of what I remember.

  19. Duncan said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    I'm native NW USian here tho now living in AZ, but spent the 4-11 formative years in Kenya back in the 70s over their 10-year independence from Britain and among other things still say "zebra" with a short e.

    Given that background, "egzit" sounds like what I might slur after being up about 30 hours straight or what I'd associate with drinking. Normally, it's a definite KS, as I was taught to pronounce X from the beginning, and GZ just sounds… slurred.

    Tho I'm quite sure my own pronunciation was from phonetically sounding out the printed form on the "exit" and "emergency exit" signs traveling between Kenya and the US in '74 and '77, and the fire exit signs in the US after that, more than actually hearing the word pronounced. Since I was taught that X had the KS sound, that's how I said it then and how I still say it today.

    Similarly for Grexit/Brexit, tho nearly all my news consumption is online/written due to my aversion to dumb ads (where any ad seen/heard more than about three times becomes dumb), and my security settings prevent me seeing nearly all online ads. So I've pretty much only seen the words in print, and pronounce them with the same KS I use for the X in exit.

  20. GeorgeW said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    I have, I think, ['ɛg.zɪt], but some reason ['brɛk.sɪt] (Southern American).

  21. Chris Brew said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    The puzzling thing is that this discussion makes me somewhat lose confidence in my pronunciation of the word "breakfast", which ought to be non-controversial.

  22. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    Oxford Dictionaries:

  23. January First-of-May said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 5:28 pm

    I'm pronouncing it ['brɛk.sɪt] (give or take some vowel details), but the word "exit" is [ɛg.'zɪt] (with second-syllable stress). So at first I thought this was going to be about the stress.

    I can't recall ever hearing anyone say ['ɛg.zɪt], but apparently this is very common – why I keep missing this sort of obvious pronunciation stuff? (A very similar thing happened to me in the "bass" thread recently.)

  24. thunk said,

    June 21, 2016 @ 9:48 pm


    ['ɛg.zɪt] is standard in General American; but when I'm speaking in "Russian mode" (as in with my family), the stress is more likely to be on the second syllable. The words might be filtered through foreign phonotactics, and that may be the cause of what you're seeing. I'm not sure though.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 4:21 am

    Where does the /gz/ pronunciation come from? What possessed people to make them pronounce x as /gz/ in a position where /ks/ is commonplace phonotactically?

    @ Joseph F Foster. Why not [sik ′se šņ]? Where'd the k sound go?


    Nevermind. Confusing two similar words.

    Secession and succession?

  26. GeorgeW said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 5:19 am

    David Marjanović: I think the /gz/ is the result of voicing assimilation with vowels on both sides.

  27. Peter S. said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    I'm American, and I can't decide whether I use a /gz/ or a /ks/—I think I use both. But phonemically, it's clearly a /k/ for me. If it were a phonemic /g/, because of pre-velar raising I would pronounce it /eɪgzɪt/, like I do /leɪg/ and /reɪgjulɑr/. And I don't; it starts with /ɛ/.

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:53 am

    Oddly enough, I have always said "eggzit," but "Breggzit" instead of "Brekksit" strikes me as very strange. It never even occurred to me as an optional pronunciation until reading this post. (Grew up in Wisconsin 1938-1955, but have lived in Massachustts since September of '55.)

  29. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:53 am

    Oddly enough, I have always said "eggzit," but "Breggzit" instead of "Brekksit" strikes me as very strange. It never even occurred to me as an optional pronunciation until reading this post. (Grew up in Wisconsin 1938-1955, but have lived in Massachustts since September of '55.)

  30. ajay said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    I have come across a, very, few uses of Brexodus

    That's the Jewish variant. For the Muslims among us, it's Brejira.

  31. Rodger C said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    @Thomas Rees: I may be wrong, but I've always supposed that pronouncing "route" to rhyme with "suit" was coterminous with pronouncing "root" to rhyme with "soot."

  32. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    @Rodger C.
    I do believe you're wrong. I grew up in Wisconsin pronouncing "route" and "root" to rhyme with "soot" and was surprised, soon after arriving in Cambridge, to learn that the locals there pronounced both to rhyme with "suit."

    My first big moment of culture shock was ordering a root beer at a Liggett's pharmacy (which I would have called a "drugstore" in Harvard Square.

  33. Rodger C said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    Ah, thank you.

  34. Algot Runeman said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 5:41 pm

    Route as "shout" – Route as "soot" – Route as "suit"

    I've heard all three. Now I'll take my exit from the discussion.

  35. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 8:42 am

    In my usage (which I think is fairly typical for the UK) 'root' and 'route' are pronounced the same, and they rhyme with 'suit', not with 'soot'. 'Route' pronounced as 'rout' strikes me as either American or military (as in 'route marches').

  36. January First-of-May said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    In my own pronunciation (heavily influenced by the spelling), "route", "root" and "soot" rhyme with each other, "suit" kinda rhymes with "soot" but is not pronounced the same (it's more like "syoot"), and "rout" rhymes with "shout" (and "about") but not with any of the above.
    I'm not sure where I got "route" as "root", incidentally (it's the only part of the above that doesn't make sense based on spelling only).

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 9:33 am

    Pronouncing "route" as homophonous with "root" rather than as homophonous with "rout" is a social-class shibboleth in many parts of the U.S. — it was one of the short list of prescriptivist pronunciations my 8th-grade English teacher kept emphasizing so that her students wouldn't sound low-class (although she of course described the stigmatized pronunciations as "wrong" rather than "indicative of a less posh class background").

    This of course assumes you pronounce "root" with the GOOSE vowel rather than the FOOT vowel, because the latter means you've got a different stigmatized-dialect thing going on.

  38. Gabe Burns said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    I definitely pronounce route in multiple ways (though it never rhymes with 'soot'), but I think my pronunciation is largely consistent for a particular usage, almost as if it were two different words, though I've never thought of it that way (but do think of, say, per-MIT and PER-mit as two different words). For me, it rhymes with "suit" if it refers to a highway (e.g. "Route 66"", but with "bout" in most other cases ("scenic route", "rural route"). As I think about it more, I may not be 100% consistent with this (probably why it still seems like one word to me), but I definitely tend to pronounce it different ways based on context. The only one that's always consistent is "Route 66", probably because of the song, though I might occasionally pronounce the name of a different road, say Route 12, rhyming with "snout". I also don't think I ever pronounced "rural route" to rhyme with "suit", but that could be because I never say "rural route" any more, (and haven't since I was about 8, when my mailing address changed from a rural route to a standard street address) and my pronunciation of "route" has simply changed over time.

  39. Gabe Burns said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 9:44 am

    @January First-of-May I'm wondering if you pronounce "soot" the same way I do. Does it rhyme with "put" or "polute"? for me it's the former.

  40. Rodger C said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    And we haven't even mentioned those who pronounce "soot" with the STRUT vowel.

  41. Phillip Minden said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    I just heard Fraser Nelson (Spectator, Scottish born, retaining rhoticity) say Bregzit in a podcast. Sorry if this is on topic.

  42. BZ said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    Hmm, for me (Russian immigrate of 25 years to New Jersey), it's eggzit and Bereggzit (and yes, I live at eggzit 4). Also soot and suite are near homophones to me. I say route to rhyme with those most of the time, but I've been known to say rout as well.

  43. January First-of-May said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 4:12 pm

    @Gabe Burns: I think it probably would rhyme with both if I tried to rhyme them, but it has the vowel of the former.

    @BZ: where the stress is? (Do you say "EGGzit" or "eggZIT"? I have the latter, everybody else seems to have the former.)

  44. Ellen K. said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

    @BZ Also soot and suite are near homophones to me.

    Surely you mean soot and suit?

  45. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    June 24, 2016 @ 1:18 am

    Watching the wall-to-wall coverage this evening I was reminded of some other things I’d noticed:

    Americans seem to tend to precede it with a definite article, whereas commentators from the U.K. say “Brexit” bare, with no article. Also, majority Spanish usage seems to favour a masculine definite article, despite salida in that language being feminine.

  46. ‘brɛk.sɪt | Polit’bistro : des politiques, du café said,

    June 24, 2016 @ 3:17 am

    […] évidemment suivi avec quelque intérêt la campagne référendaire sur le Brexit (que je prononce à l'américaine). Les campagnes électorales britanniques sont toujours très intenses, et celle-ci n'a pas […]

  47. Phillip Minden said,

    June 24, 2016 @ 5:37 am

    Well, éxito (success) is masculine.

  48. Troy S. said,

    June 25, 2016 @ 11:36 pm

    Granola bar? It sounds like the croaking of a frog. I can't help but be reminded of Aristophanes' famous line: "Brekekekex koax koax."

  49. The Nitpicker’s Nook: June’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    […] Brexit: the fun new portmanteau that everyone’s worrying about. And if, like me, you edit in the finance world, you’ve probably seen the term a lot. Linguist Mark Liberman muses on different pronunciations of the trendy word in John Oliver’s must-see Brexit segment from Last Week Tonight, which you can watch within the article. I’m in the ['brɛk.sɪt] camp. What about you? (Language Log) […]

  50. Stan Carey said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    I did a quick poll on Twitter and got the following results:

    75% [ks], 23% [gz], 2% other (n=534).

    There was no easy way to include dialect and other demographic detail, but some replies included it. Several said their 'x' differed in exit and Brexit.

  51. Branger. Debression.Oexit. Zumxit. Why Did Brexit Trigger a Brexplosion of Wordplay? – said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    […] remarked on its irksomeness. Facebook users likened it to breakfast. Linguists have discussed its pronunciation and syntax. In its coverage of Brexit, the New York Times still marks it as a novel formation. The […]

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