The language of Brexit (1): Aphosasis, pink elephants and bargaining chips

pinkelephantAs a professional coach, leadership consultant, trainer of coaches and speakers (but not a mother :-)), I have learned a bit over the past three decades about how language works – how we can use language to focus or diffuse attention, to suggest ideas without saying them, to channel peoples’ thinking in certain ways.  This is the first in a series of posts about the language we are seeing in post-Brexit Britain.

During her interview with the Times, published yesterday, Andrea Leadsom says (transcript here):

So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

Look at the bit where she says “I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t'”.  It sounds as if she is making a humane point and wanting a fair debate.  However, in raising the issue at all she has succeeded in bringing into the conversation.  As I write, many people are accusing her of incompetence and inexperience in this move, while a few are saying that she is not naïve and well intended to do it.

The posh name for this aspect of rhetoric is aphosasis – bringing something up while denying it or denying that it should be brought up.  Why is this such a powerful device? Surely when someone says that something doesn’t matter, then they should be taken at their word?  Let’s look at what happens here.

When someone says ‘this is not a factor’ then we have to think of the factor in order to work out what is ‘not being said’. The classical example used in many trainings is “don’t think of a pink elephant”… which gets everyone thinking of pink elephants immediately.  Try it for yourself – oh yes, you just did.  See what I mean?  We can’t just ‘not think of something’, we need to think of it in order to work out what not to think about.

What has gone less widely reported is that Leadsom used a similar device earlier in the week.  In a discussion of the future residence rights of those from other EU countries, Theresa May said that this couldn’t be guaranteed at this time.   Leadsom promptly issued a statement saying that “We must give them certainty, there is no way they will be bargaining chips in our negotiations”.   So, Leadsom was the first to use the term ‘bargaining chips’, once again in by way of aphosasis, by saying that’s NOT what was happening.

This use of the term ‘bargaining chips’ was picked up and used widely by many other politicians and commentators. In fact, some think that Theresa May actually used it.  One of my colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, philosophy professor Constantine Sandis, tweeted ‘Theresa May just called me a bargaining chip 😂 — Constantine Sandis (@csandis) July 4, 2016.  That’s the image we’re left with – but she didn’t call anyone a bargaining chip.  Andrea Leadsom said that he WASN’T a bargaining chip.  See how it works?

The jury is still out on whether Mrs Leadsom is a skilled user of language or a naïve beginner in the world of top-line politics.  The results of the Tory leadership contest are not due until 9th September – so we have a boggling two more months to find out.

Mark McKergow is an international speaker, coach, teacher and author, and is a visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.  Find out more about his work at and

One thought on “The language of Brexit (1): Aphosasis, pink elephants and bargaining chips

  1. Update on 12 July: We didn’t have two months to find out about Mrs Leadsom. It was all finished over a weekend. Opinions differ on exactly why she quit the race – she says it was the pressure on her and her family. Others mutter about ‘dark forces at work’. Yet others think that the Conservative Party’s famous ‘men in grey suits’ paid her a visit and told her that she’s taken the country to the edge of the cliff, but she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive it into the abyss. Whatever, that particular path to destruction is now, for the time being, closed off.

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