Learn your A–Z

Some words or phrases appear constantly in the media or in conversation but they seem to mean different things depending on who is using them. Other words are often misused or misunderstood.

Don’t worry – this handy Agnes guide will lead you through the maze so that you will always say exactly what you mean (and mean exactly what you say). More will follow!



(See also “Europe” below and our page on the European Union)

Brexit (“British Exit”) is the common shorthand way of referring to the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU), which formally took place on 31 January 2020.

The UK voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016, and the Government then agreed to put this decision into effect. The Government negotiated an initial agreement with the EU on the terms of Brexit, which sought to respect the referendum result but also maintain a close relationship with the EU. This agreement failed three times in 2019 to win the necessary approval from Parliament, from both  “Remainers” (many of whom were passionately opposed to Brexit in any form) and “Brexiteers” (many of whom wanted a “clean break” from the EU). After many months of bitter political and legal arguments, culminating in a General Election in December 2019, a revised agreement was eventually approved by Parliament and signed by both the UK and the EU in January 2020; meaning that the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. Brexit has therefore, finally, happened.

Brexit was one of the most divisive political issues in the UK of recent times. It’s hard to find sensible, balanced, up-to-date coverage of Brexit matters; much of what you read is coloured by people’s very strong views, as either “Brexiteers” or “Remainers” – and much is simply untrue.   Be particularly wary of more or less everything you read on the subject.  But we can recommend this page from the BBC, which sets out the overall picture clearly and dispassionately; and for more detailed, in-depth analysis, you can try these excellent Parliamentary briefings.



“Depression” or being “depressed” are confusingly used in two senses:

  • an everyday, common, emotion of feeling a bit “down” or “low” – perhaps  at the thought of another school week looming, or if you’ve just been dumped by your boyfriend, or it’s raining outside and you can’t think of anything particular to do. Although this type of depression varies in intensity, it is normally quite short-lived and can generally be cured by everyday solutions – a good chat with friends, a new project, a walk in the countryside, a trip to the cinema.
  • clinical depression, when your mind becomes overwhelmed and you are unable to think or function normally for an extended period of time. This is a serious mental illness, and requires treatment – please see here if you think you or a friend might be affected.

Elite ( or  “The Liberal elite” or “the Establishment”)


All these expressions were regularly used during the turbulent politics of 2016, in both the UK and the USA. Politicians such as Nigel Farage in the UK and Donald Trump in the USA criticised people in privileged positions who had been in charge and organised things to suit themselves for too long.  They accused them of ignoring the lives and wishes of “normal people”.

The reference to the “liberal” elite reflected the view that privileged people had the luxury of being more relaxed and tolerant, than those “normal people” who directly suffered the effects of unemployment or housing shortages or overstretched social services. It did not seem to recognise the possibility that unprivileged people can also be tolerant, and that privileged people can be intolerant; but there has since been some more widespread concern that too many people in positions of power or influence are unaware or dismissive of other viewpoints.

In the UK, many people who have key roles in politics, journalism, media and other well-paid and influential professions, do share a similar background – public (or occasionally grammar) school followed by “Oxbridge” (university at Oxford or Cambridge). Often these people know each other socially, and any children they may have seem to be given a head-start in life. This may give the impression of an “establishment” closed to anyone who does not fit the mould.

In fact, there are also plenty of people from other backgrounds in politics, journalism, media and other well-paid and influential positions including MPs, industry leaders, solicitors, bankers, scientists…. And most “establishment” organisations, including Oxbridge, the Civil Service and the BBC , are keen to reflect wider society, and actively encourage participation from as wide a cross-section as possible.

Don’t be put off anything you want to do by the feeling that it is somehow not for you; make the most of your education, inform and prepare yourself, and let the world be your oyster.



When people in the UK refer to “Europe” they might mean:

  • the geographical continent of Europe. The UK, confusingly, is both part of the geographical continent of Europe (it is a “European” or “northern European” country), and also separate from it (it is not part of the continental landmass)
  • the European Union (EU) or its institutions or its actions or its decisions –  described in more detail here
  • The European Court of Human Rights or its judgments, which affect the UK for the reasons explained here

Quite often people are not clear about which “Europe” they mean, and this can lead to some misunderstandings. For example, the referendum decision of June 2016  to leave the EU will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, its place in the Ryder Cup European team or its success or otherwise in the Eurovision Song Contest.



The dictionary definition of feminism is “advocacy of women’s rights on grounds of equality of the sexes”. In other words, feminists argue that because men and women are equal, women should have the same rights as men.

The reason for using the specific words “feminism” or “feminist” rather than “equality” or “equalist” is because most men have historically had greater rights in most societies than most women. Feminism was designed to redress the balance.

There is a wide range of people who call themselves feminists, and a wide range of activities and viewpoints that can be described as “feminist”. Different things matter to different people. Feminism can be the core part of a person’s identity and interests, or one of many things that matters to them. Some feminists like to theorise, others to take direct action.

Feminism has achieved much greater equality in the UK over the past decades, and under the law you should not be treated less favourably because you’re a girl or a woman. You may however think that in practice girls and women are still treated less favourably in the UK in certain areas – perhaps in relationships, or in certain jobs, or in your ability to walk down the street without harassment; and you may see even more pressing needs in other countries around the world. If you consider yourself a feminist, you will not be short of things to do.



This term is sometimes loosely used as an alternative to “sex”, in the sense of the distinction between men and women (perhaps some people prefer it because “sex” of course also means “sexual intercourse”); so you may hear people talking about “gender discrimination”.

More precisely, it is now used to mean either:

  • the state of being male or female in cultural or social terms rather than biological terms; so “gender differences”, “traditional gender roles”
  • the sex that a person identifies themself as, rather than their biological sex. For most people, their gender identity is the same as their biological sex, but for some people there is a mismatch which can cause distress – see more about this here


The “gender pay gap” measures the difference between men’s and women’s average earnings across a particular organisation or company, or the labour market in general. It is expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings. In Britain,there is currently an overall pay gap of 18.1%.

This does not mean that men and women are paid different amounts for the same work; this is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. Reasons for the gender pay gap are complex and might reflect quite deeply embedded differences in men’s and women’s life choices and attitudes, as well as stereotyping or even actual discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission lists the following as possible factors:  that the highest paid sectors are male-dominated; that women more often work part time or take whole years out of the labour market completely to care for family; or unconscious or conscious stereotyping about women’s readiness and ability to do certain jobs or accept promotions.

In order to understand the issues better, and allow action to be taken where necessary, the Government has introduced a legal requirement on employers with 250 or more employees to publish statutory calculations every year showing how large the pay gap is between their male and female employees, in six different ways. The first annual reports are due on 4 April 2018; some have already been published and have caused considerable interest. You can find out more about the gender pay gap reporting requirement here.



A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. They are afraid to return because of a well-founded fear that the same persecution, war or violence will be repeated.

Refugees are protected in international law, principally under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees (as extended). In very simplified terms, people who flee to another country can apply for asylum in that country; their application is processed according to the laws of that country, and if it is found that they meet the definition of a refugee, they have a right to remain in that country. Under current EU rules, people are required to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach.

Refugees are not the same as economic migrants; this expression is not defined in law, but is generally used to mean someone who leaves their country in search of a better life, rather than because they are forced to leave by persecution, war or violence. Economic migrants are not protected under the 1951 Convention, and will not be granted asylum, but may be allowed to stay in the new country depending on that country’s immigration policy.

Sexual orientation


Your sexual orientation refers to the type of person to whom you are sexually, romantically, or physically attracted. Teenagers are often attracted to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways – see this page for more.