Britannia waives the rules

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"'Britannia waives the rules': The EU Brexit in quotes", BBC News 6/28/2016:

Martina Anderson, MEP for Irish republican party Sinn Fein

Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the EU. The vote could mean major changes to security on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

"If English votes drag us out of the EU that would be like Britannia waives the rules. There was a democratic vote. We voted to remain. I tell you that the last thing that the people of Ireland need is an EU border with 27 member states stuck right in the middle of it."

"Britannia waives the rules" is obviously a punning reference to the phrase "Britannia! rule the waves" in the patriotic song Rule, Britannia, which Wikipedia tells us was commissioned in 1740 by Frederick, Prince of Wales, for reasons that may seem a bit ironic in the current context:

Frederick, a German prince who arrived in England as an adult and was on very bad terms with his father, was making considerable efforts to ingratiate himself and build a following among his subjects-to-be (which came to naught, as he predeceased his father and never became king). A masque linking the prince with both the medieval hero-king Alfred the Great's victories over the Vikings and with the current building of British sea power — exemplified by the recent successful capture of Porto Bello from the Spanish by Admiral Vernon on 21 November 1739, avenging in the eyes of the British public Admiral Hosier's disastrous Blockade of Porto Bello of 1726–27 — went well with his political plans and aspirations.

Ms. Anderson is not the first one to have thought of this pun.

The earliest example I've been able to find is from The British Register in 1842:

The phrase appears again in Frances Douglas and Thelma LeCoq, Britannia Waives the Rules: A Confidential Guide to the Customs, Manners and Habits of the Nation of 'shop-keepers', 1934, about which Time Magazine wrote:

Canadian Authors Douglas & LeCocq dedicate their "confidential guide" to England to "hit-and-run writers from England … to Mary Queen of Scots, Joan of Arc, and other ladies who have misjudged the English—and to the Atlantic Ocean which keeps us apart." Author LeCocq has been to England; Author Douglas has not. Their little (112-page) satire on their Motherland scores many a palpable hit, is never far off the mark.

We see it again in Arthur Theodore Culwick, Britannia Waives the Rules,  1963, a "book on imperial folly … rejected in England as  'absurd' and 'neoblimpish' and 'unlikely to command much support in England  outside Cheltenham'", and therefore published in South Africa.

The scene then shifts to popular music, where we encounter If I Were Brittania [sic] I'd Waive the Rules, which Wikipedia tells us was " Budgie's sixth album, released in April 1976".

Some people try to tell me that life is a joy
Others think I'm crazy when I say it's a toy
Only the lonely understand that it's true
Only Britannia has the right to waive the rules

You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube.

And again, there's a 1982 "punk split EP" Britannia Waives The Rules by The Exploited, Chron Gen, and Infa-Riot.

All in all, a less distinguished history than one might hope for.



  1. CNH said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    Hang on! It's not 'Britannia rules the waves' but 'Britannia, rule the waves!'

    It's an exhortation, not a statement.

    [(myl) Sorry — of course you're right. But the declarative version is widespread as well.

    Meanwhile, those in favor of Bracksies may prefer an exhortative pun to a declarative one:

    "Britannia! Waive the rules!"


  2. RP said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 8:29 am

    To be honest I thought it was a subjunctive (with the meaning of "may Britannia rule the waves" – similar to "God save the Queen"), but you might be right, CNH. Certainly some versions of the song have no comma, though.

  3. richardelguru said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    Maybe after the Nepoleonic Wars, but surely in 1740ish being ruley's not what would spring to mind.

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 11:16 am

    As I understand it, the original poem said 'Rule, Britannia, rule the waves!'. The repeated 'Britannia' (like the repeated 'never' in the next line) was put in by the composer for the sake of the rhythm. So I think it's clearly an imperative. (This doesn't mean that people shouldn't be allowed to say 'Britannia rules the wave', of course, just that when they do so they aren't directly quoting.)

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    FWIW anarthrous "Exploited" seems unidiomatic to my Punk-Rock-English native speaker ear (other than in various contexts where articles are routinely deleted, as e.g. for alphabetizing ones record inventory) and indeed the standardly-arthrous form "The Exploited" is how it's printed on the cover art of the EP in question (which also features a mohawk hairstyle and a soft-porn-bondage wardrobe for the lady holding the trident): (you can click on the image of the cover art to get a somewhat larger version).

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 11:50 am

    (Or, as I now realize, you can see the cover art for that EP at legible size by clicking through to the youtube link in the original post.)

  7. Jim said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

    I once saw an article discussing creative and punning headlines that included an item about Encyclopedia Brittanica making some significant shift in policy. According to the article, it had been reported in one or more newspapers under the headline "Brittanica waives the rules."

  8. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    "Britannia rules the waves, but America waives the rules" was supposedly a British response to the 1934 America's Cup races. T.O.M. Sopwith's challenger, Endeavour, won the first two races, narrowly lost the third, and was flying the protest flag when she crossed the line behind the defender, Rainbow, in the fourth race. Sopwith's challenge was disallowed because, according to New York Yacht Club officials, he hadn't raised the challenge flag soon enough.
    The phrase has been variously ascribed to Sopwith himself, to an anonymous headline writer at an unnamed English newspaper, and to a correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, but I've been unable to trace it to a specific source. (I'm a sports historian.)

  9. Bathrobe said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    So this pun is somewhat older than "Time wounds all heels".

  10. Rubrick said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 7:39 pm

    I'm now curious how far back the pun would be semantically valid. That is to say, there must have been a point before which either "rule" wasn't both a noun and verb, or "waive" and "wave" weren't homophonic.

  11. ardj said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 2:51 am

    @Bathrobe: indeed, somewhat antedating the Rev. WA Spooner.

    But what I want to know is where did Bracksies come from – was it started by the Vox article ( ) ?

  12. BZ said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

    "Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the EU. The vote could mean major changes to security on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."

    So this makes no sense unless "the vote" refers to the result of the entire referendum, not what Northern Ireland voted for (which presumably doesn't really matter since there was only one referendum across the UK). However, the obvious reading of the caption is the latter, with "Northern Ireland voted" acting as a clear antecedent.

    But surely, if "the vote" somehow resulted in Northern Ireland staying in the EU, border security would be an issue between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, not Ireland.

  13. mollymooly said,

    July 1, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    'this makes no sense unless "the vote" refers to the result of the entire referendum'

    …which is what it does refer to. No other reading is obvious or even plausible to me. Martina Anderson's entire quote appears to be extemporaneous speech, not a drafted statement, still less a copyedited text. Coherence and cohesion in real-word speech doesn't follow the Strunkian ideal; co-operative listeners and readers allow for this.

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