Learn English – “Broken Britain”


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
’ 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

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.

Best Answer

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.