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It's been mentioned all week about Brexit, but what is 'perfidious Albion'?

It’s a phrase that has literally been around for centuries.

International Green Week 2019 Source: DPA/PA Images

WE’VE HAD PLENTY of new phrases emerge thanks to Brexit: red lines; backstop; max fac.

But this week we saw the reemergence of a phrase that has popped up every now and then during the Brexit debacle: Perfidious Albion.

But what does it mean, and why were people using it this week?

Tweet by @Waterford Hurling Source: Waterford Hurling/Twitter

First off, ‘perfidious albion’ isn’t a new phrase. 

The word ‘perfidious’ is an adjective which comes from the Latin noun ‘perfidia’, which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to:

  1. The quality or state of being faithless or disloyal: Treachery
  2. An act or an instance of disloyalty 

Albion, meanwhile, means Great Britain or England. It’s also Latin and has been in use since before the 12th century.

So we can see what ‘perfidious albion’ (or rather, ‘perfidious Albion’) means, then: a disloyal Britain. So it’s not a positive phrase, then.

But where did it come from?

It’s to the French playwright Augustin Louis de Ximénes that the first use of perfidious albion is usually attributed to.

He has a line in his poem L’Ere des Francais (published in 1793) which says:

Let us attack perfidious Albion in her waters. 

This is related to political events back in the 1790s. During the French Revolution, it was perceived that Great Britain allied itself with other monarchies in Europe once the revolution led to the overthrow of Louis XVI. That was seen as a perfidious thing to do. 

Since then, it’s been used to refer to different political events and Britain’s role in them, relating to countries like Portugal, Rhodesia, Gibraltar and Palestine. During the First World War, it was used by Italians to criticise Great Britain over not enforcing all the terms of the Treaty of London.

What’s key is that the criticism is usually levelled by those outside of Britain itself, towards its behaviour to other countries.

And you can of course see how the phrase could be used when it comes to Brexit, particularly by those outside the UK. But with Brexit, it is also British people who are using the phrase – which in itself demonstrates the fractures caused by the 2016 referendum. (There’s even a book called Perfidious Albion, published in August of last year and written by Sam Byers. As the name befits it, it is a post-Brexit satire. )

The phrase started popping up again this week after Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May got the nod from MPs to go back to Europe and renegotiate on the hugely contentious backstop.

The fact she had previously supported the backstop could be seen by some to be an example of perfidious Albion. But to May, it’s most likely just another move in the giant, confusing game of chess she’s playing with the EU.

One thing’s for sure: as long as the Brexit situation rumbles on with no decisive moment in sight, the phrase perfidious albion will continue to be rolled out by Britain’s – and particularly the Tory party’s – critics.  

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