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It's not a flattering term for Great Britain but due to its catchy alliteration it has not run out of steam among newspaper editors.

Wikipedia says

Broken Britain is a term which has been used in The Sun newspaper, and by the Conservative Party to describe a perceived widespread state of social decay in the United Kingdom. The Sun has run frequent stories under the "Broken Britain" theme since 2007

In a parliamentary briefing entitled The problems of British society (2010) we learn

Broken society” may be a catchy phrase, and useful for encompassing a variety of social ills, but what does it mean? (...) Tony Blair in 1995 asked us to look at “the wreckage of our broken society” and, using the now-familiar language of rights and responsibilities, called for a new civic society where everyone played a part. The phrase then really came into its own in the Conservative leadership campaign in 2005, first from Liam Fox and then with David Cameron taking up the term in his leadership acceptance speech.


In March 2010, political commentator and Lib-Dem, Adam Bell, talked about epithets and soundbites

‘adjective’ Britain
It’s clear that the coming election will be fought over adjectives. Specifically, the adjectives one likes to place in front of ‘Britain’. Anyone with even a cursory interest in politics can’t help but notice the proliferation of phrases like ‘Blackout Britain’, ‘Breakdown Britain’ and other pejorative epithets riding on the back of Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’ soundbite. (...) Unlike other soundbites, the ‘Britain’ line directly refers to contemporary society, so rather than being an easy way to encapsulate a policy pledge (i.e. ‘Education, education, education’), it becomes a method by which a politician can establish a shared identity with the electorate.

The writer Vron Ware argues in his book on the history of Britain's 21st century Commonwealth soldiers that Broken Britain is metaphorical

The term "Broken Britain" had become a clichè, operating as an expressive metaphor of a dysfunctional national community.


And in a paper published by the University of Edinburgh, by Tom Slater (2013). We have the following observation

The Myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance
(...) Cameron’s declamatory argument is clear and unequivocal: “big government” has “broken” Britain, and encouraged everyone to be “irresponsible”. “Broken Britain” in fact became the catchphrase of the 2010 general election, which many attributed to the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids. Whilst there is no question that Tory-boosting tabloids (and broadsheets) did indeed devote considerable ink to this moral panic, its origins lie in the activities and publications of Duncan-Smith’s CSJ.


So what is "Broken Britain"? Linguistically speaking, is it a metaphor, catch phrase, epithet, or a soundbite? I suggested it was a derogatory nickname for Great Britain in a previous answer of mine. Was I mistaken? Is it a metonymy because it represents the breakdown of British society and welfare? Why is it so linguistically powerful ?

I'd also appreciate knowing if the expression existed prior to 2005, it seems unlikely that nobody thought of it during the economic crisis of the 1970s before Margaret Thatcher came to power.

  • Great political comment @MarvMills, but I'm not really asking if you agree with Broken Britain, I just want to know what to call "it". Soundbite is good, I hadn't thought of that. – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '14 at 10:28
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    @MarvMills 'Soundbite' is ideal. Note how it is used derogatorily by the party which is out of office - Tony Blair in 1995, and David Cameron in the years leading up to the 2010 election. Rupert Murdoch has an axe to grind as he, his family and his dreadful little newspapers, for all their trumpeting, were found out to be rogues and villains themselves. – WS2 Oct 9 '14 at 10:35
  • Hi Mari! -- it's just a somewhat common "political catchphrase" in the UK. These are popular in both the UK and USA (for example "Soccer Moms" or "Watergate", etc etc.) I'm somewhat confused why you're asking -- it's fully and totally explained by the articles you quote. – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 15:12
  • @JoeBlow I understand its meaning, I'm curious how to classify it. A simple phrase, a catchphrase, a metaphor or as suggested by Marv Mills a soundbite. – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '14 at 15:16
  • Gotchya sorry. It has utterly no relation to "soundbite" – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 15:18
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I'd call such a packaged (typically derogatory) name an epithet.

Merriam-Webster's definition of epithet:

A word or phrase that describes a person or thing

An offensive word or name that is used as a way of abusing or insulting someone

From Wikipedia's article on epithet:

An epithet, is a byname or a descriptive term (word or phrase), accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage. It can be described as a glorified ... In contemporary usage, epithet often refers to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase, such as a racial epithet.

From Robert A. Harris' "Handbook of Rhetorical Devices" (page 6)

Epithet is an adjective or adjective phrase appropriately qualifying a subject (noun) by naming a key or important characteristic of the subject, as in "laughing happiness," "sneering contempt," "untroubled sleep," "peaceful dawn," and "lifegiving water." Sometimes a metaphorical epithet will be good to use, as in "lazy road," "tired landscape," "smirking billboards," "anxious apple." Aptness and brilliant effectiveness are the key considerations in choosing epithets. Be fresh, seek striking images, pay attention to connotative value.

A transferred epithet is an adjective modifying a noun which it does not normally modify, but which makes figurative sense:

At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth of thieves and murderers .... --George Herbert

Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold / A sheep hook ... --John Milton

In an age of pressurized happiness, we sometimes grow insensitive to subtle joys.

The striking and unusual quality of the transferred epithet calls attention to it, and it can therefore be used to introduce emphatically an idea you plan to develop. The phrase will stay with the reader, so there is no need to repeat it, for that would make it too obviously rhetorical and even a little annoying. Thus, if you introduce the phrase, "diluted electricity," your subsequent development ought to return to more mundane synonyms, such as "low voltage," "brownouts," and so forth. It may be best to save your transferred epithet for a space near the conclusion of the discussion where it will be not only clearer (as a synonym for previously stated and clearly understandable terms) but more effective, as a kind of final, quintessential, and yet novel conceptualization of the issue. The reader will love it.

  • That's a great point Dan! – Fattie Oct 10 '14 at 7:27
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Catchphrase, slogan, epithet, and sound bite are all terms about the pragmatics of Broken Britain.
I.e, what the phrase is used for, politically, rhetorically, and as a media phenomenon.

Its syntax, on the other hand, is simple. It's a noun phrase, consisting of

  • an attributive adjective formed from a participle (e.g, broken, revolting, drunk)
    preceding, and modifying

  • a proper locative noun (e.g, Britain, Iraq, Yonkers)

It's not a normal condition for a proper noun to be modified by an attributive adjective.
Proper nouns have strange rules for articles and modification, and so do locative nouns.
So the first thing to note is that this deviates from normal grammar rules.
This is generally a plus for a slogan, because this gets noticed.

Second, as a phrase, it's alliterative, which is also generally a good thing for a slogan.
Those two words both begin with the same /br/ consonant cluster; this also gets noticed.
And they both have two syllables, and they both have stress on the first syllable.
This makes the phrase fun to say, like anything repetitive.

Third, the /br/ cluster is not just any cluster; it's a phonosemantic assonance in English;
it's got a story and that story, and all its parts, will get mixed in with all the uses of the slogan.

  • I wish folks would stop saying it's a soundbite. Regarding any soundbite you can - of course, obviously - bring up on youtube, the soundbite. This catchphrase could be used in a soundbite {if so, supply a link to the soundbite video}, it may have even originated in a sound bite {if so, supply a link to the soundbite video}, but it is not a soundbite. You might as well claim it's a "video clip" or a "feature film" or a "popular novel". – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 17:16
  • "Sound bite" doesn't have a meaning, being a recent catchphrase itself. And it isn't a grammatical term in any case; it's just used to refer to any repeated chunk of language that's been attached to a currently popular meme. – John Lawler Oct 9 '14 at 17:20
  • John, I believe "Britain" in the phrase is not the proper naming noun "Britain" (as in "Iraq" "Australia" etc). It is being used as "British Society and Culture." Regarding alliteration, clever copywriters always alliterate. – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 17:20
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    "Soundbite" has a clear, absolutely totally clear, 100.0% fully established, for a long time, meaning. As clear as say "TV ad" or "64-sheet poster". For any ELL folks reading, to get the meaning of a extremely well established word, look in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Soundbite: a short extract from a recorded interview or speech, chosen for its succinctness or concision." If we are talking about a soundbite (which does not even make sense conceptually), someone give the link to the relevant youtube video. Or at least state, eg, "who and when this soundbite happened". – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 17:23
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    @JoeBlow: I don't know who this sound bite happened. And I'm not talking about soundbites anyway. I'm talking about the phrase Broken Britain, which I'd never heard before (being American). You're commenting on the wrong answer, sorry. The one by Marv Mills is the one you want to not be mad about. – John Lawler Oct 9 '14 at 17:29
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"So what is Broken Britain? Linguistically speaking, is it a term, a phrase, or a catchphrase? I suggested it was a derogatory nickname for Great Britain in a previous answer of mine."

It's a catchphrase. (See dictionary entry for catchphrase.)

A catchphrase can indeed be a nickname (there are many examples), and a catchphrase is also a term or phrase.

I believe there is not, particularly, a word or phrase for "political catchphrases" (Soccer Moms, etc) - just "political catchphrase."

"I'd also appreciate knowing if the expression existed prior to 2005..."

Just FWIW I believe it is only "new", yeah.

"it seems unlikely that nobody thought of it during the economic crisis in the 1970s"

FWIW for me "Broken Britain" really reeks of our era today. (It's rather "down on slackers" -- you know?)

There were entirely different catchphrases in the pre-Thatcher era .. it was more party v. party ... example:

enter image description here

and sundry catchphrases from Thatcher ("U turn if you want to." etc etc) which were rather personality driven. Completely different issues were at hand.


BTW Mari - there's also "Blair's Britain", which you hear[d] somewhat commonly.

  • Include the dictionary entry, lazy boy! :) – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '14 at 15:23
  • You see, I'd say "labour isn't working" is more akin to a catchphrase than "Broken Britain". Do two words make a phrase? Note Wikipedia calls it a "term". – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '14 at 15:26
  • I appreciate that point. It's like there should be another term for a "short catchphrase" or a "naming catchphrase". But the fact is everyone uses "catcphrase" for "soccer mom" "broken britain" etc. – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 15:28
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    “Labour isn’t working” is new to me—what an absolutely brilliant use of linguistic ambiguity! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 9 '14 at 16:22
  • Hey Janus! You know, it is incredibly famous as an advertising campaign. It is as famous in the UK as an ad slogan, as say "Just do it" in the US, or, err, Bitte ein Bit! in the Deutscheland! :) (In a way, I don't think it qualifies as a "catchphrase" because you don't, I think, normally apply "catchphrase" to an ad "slogan".) {It's interesting - "catchphrase" is almost, you could say, the term for a "slogan - but not originating in the advertising world."} The single ad had a staggering influence on the world of advertising (it basically launched Saatchi & Saatchi .... – Fattie Oct 9 '14 at 17:12

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