Cripes! It's the bumper Borisaurus
Cripes! It’s the bumper Borisaurus: Witty, inventive and shocking… the PM’s language is truly unique. Now, a wickedly entertaining book by the Mail’s SIMON WALTERS helps sort the gems from the gibberish
August 2008 was when I first experienced Latinate evasion; I had no idea what it was at the time. I didn’t find out until more than ten years later while researching this book.
According to this technique, if you are backed into a corner and called upon to give a straight answer, there is a way out: give a Latin veneer to your response and people will be so impressed or bedazzled that they won’t notice you have both given, and withheld, an answer at the same time.
Most won’t even know what you are talking about until later, when they have googled it, which is the position I was in after an interview at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
I was reporting on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s visit, but Boris Johnson stole the headlines as the newly elected Mayor of London, mainly with his startling speech marking London as the host of the next Games.
‘Whiff-whaff ‘ was coming home, he declared, stating that the Chinese national sport of ping-pong was invented in England by the Victorians. I was in the audience and saw the collective jaws of the dignitaries alongside him hit the floor in astonishment that anyone, especially a relative political novice, could be so irreverent on such a grand occasion — and carry it off.
The Latinate evasion came 24 hours earlier, when I interviewed Johnson at the Games. With his Old Etonian rival David Cameron yet to make his mark as Tory leader, the obvious way to skewer the new mayor was to ask if his sights were now set on the Conservative leadership.
After playfully dodging the question once or twice, Johnson muttered: ‘Were I to be pulled like Cincinnatus from my plough, it would be a great privilege…’ and sauntered off. Come again?
Once I got a wi-fi connection I learned that Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman of great virtue who had given up public life but agreed to return immediately from his farm to save Rome from invasion. The denarius dropped: Boris did want to oust Dave.
I had my story. But Johnson had couched his disloyalty in such heroic lyricism it made you want to smile, not scowl; to admire his ambition and erudition, not admonish him.
It appears he learned this device from one of his Tory idols, Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is not hard to see why Johnson might identify with Right-wing intellectual Clark, who was notorious for calling Africa ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’ and parading his affairs with the wife of a judge and her two daughters, whom he referred to as ‘the coven’.
But what struck Johnson most was Clark’s response when he was caught lying in the 1990s arms-toIraq weapons scandal. When asked in court if he had told the truth, Clark drawled that he had been ‘economical with the actualité’.
It wasn’t just ‘brilliant’, concluded Johnson, speaking at a Latin themed charity event in 2007; it was ‘also less self-condemnatory than ‘I lied’. The thing about Latinate words [actualité is French, of course] is they are evasive’.
Eureka. Classicist Johnson’s articles, speeches, books and interviews are full of the lexicon and imagery of gods, myths, battles and epic poems, adapted for schoolboy puns and scholarly polemics.
They are also full of German, Norse, Yiddish and many other languages, to inform and entertain — as well as to get him out of a tight corner.
It is hard not to be impressed by the vast cultural hinterland he flaunts; his range of voices, from Archimedes to Alf Garnett, Suetonius to the Stones, grandiloquent prose and grimaceinducing wordplays delivered together on great occasions.
One minute he is Billy Bunter, all ‘cripes’ and ‘crumbs’; the next, Mary Beard retracing the Battle of Cannae; then it is a cod-Churchill, replacing the V for victory with a walrus-like, flapping Benny Hill salute.
Next it is Jeremy Clarkson on Viagra, bellowing over the roar of an MG roadster. In one bound he can leap from Gussie Fink-Nottle to a Keef Richards riff; adolescent to academic, philosopher to fool without pausing for breath.
An article about motoring speed limits contains what seems like an innocuous reference to a Ferrari ‘Testadicazzo’. Not being familiar with that model — nor an Italian speaker — I checked.
The result is outrageous: you will find it in my new book The Borisaurus, an A-Z of Borisisms, under ‘T’. The impact of Johnson’s statements is often heightened by masking them with a ‘miasma of faux ignorance’, as one commentator put it.
He gains the attention of those with little interest in politics by inviting them to laugh at him playing the buffoon — because they can see that underneath it, he isn’t one. He calls it ‘imbecilio’ (another favourite word of his).
Latinate evasion hasn’t always got him off the hook. When the story of his affair with Petronella Wyatt broke in 2004, I was the political journalist who asked him if it was true. His reply, dismissing it as an ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’, will live for ever as the original ‘Borisism’.
It may have been ‘brilliant’, but it was also a lie. He was fired from the Tory front bench as a result. Johnson looked on the bright side: ‘There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.’
The range, roots, richness and rudery of the nouns, verbs and adjectives at his command is spellbinding. When he can’t find the right word, he makes one up.
If you constructed a giant word map based on Johnson’s writings, among the names of Homer, Pericles, Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Thatcher, Bush, Blair, Brown, Delors, Trump, Cameron, May, Corbyn and Heseltine, there would be all manner of descriptions of breasts, male virility and sex in general.
Listen to his defiant tribute to Dr Samuel Johnson, who produced one of the first English dictionaries: a ‘slobbering, sexist xenophobe who understood human nature’; a man who, despite his ‘flobbery lips’, had such ‘natural charisma’ that women fought to sit next to him; a ‘brilliant champion of the English language and the little guy’.
Which Mr Johnson does he have in mind? Some of his earlier work (in particular his novel, the unsubtly titled Seventy-Two Virgins) is shocking when reviewed in the third decade of the 21st century.
Parts seem like an excuse for the racist and sexist outpourings you might expect from the 1970s teenage public schoolboy he once was, except it was written in 2004, when he was entering his 40s and had been an MP for three years.
The word ‘coon’ appears gratuitously six times within a few sentences — admittedly as part of the dialogue, not, strictly speaking, the voice of the narrator; but there is no mistaking it as coming from a place of authenticity.
It is the same streak that made him dare to joke about Muslim women with ‘letterbox’ veils resembling ‘bank robbers’ less than a year before he became Prime Minister. Other words and phrases reveal deeper thoughts about ambition, Islam, public and private morals, journalism, blood sports, climate change, the old and the young.
Not forgetting Europe; lots of Europe. Very little on economics. Some of his views have stayed the same; with others he has done a handbrake turn worthy of one of his car reviews.
The same Boris who, soon after becoming Prime Minister, told a sceptical senior banker that his economic strategy was based on ‘boosterism’ scoffed at another fresh new Prime Minister for taking the same approach in 1997.
The ‘understated, tongue-tied self-effacement’ of boring John Major was what foreigners loved most about Britain, wrote Johnson, not flashy Tony Blair’s ‘loutish boosterism’.
The animal rights crusader who howled in 2018 that you would have to be ‘crapulous’ (sickeningly drunk) to fail to protest about Japanese whaling — doubtless earning the approval of partner Carrie Symonds, who works for the environmental organisation Oceana — eulogised the ‘gralloching’ (disembowelling) of a stag a decade earlier.
The man who now says he will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to curb the risk of climate change flooding, lampooned ‘ecowarriors’ in 2000 for suggesting that vehicle emissions were — as he put it — ‘turning the outskirts of Taunton into the Brahmaputra delta’ [the Bangladesh flood zone].
He spent most of the 2019 election campaign promising that allowing a bigger private sector stake in the NHS would ‘not be on the table’ in trade talks with the U.S. But back in 2001, he railed that the ‘statist’ NHS was ‘the last home of socialist medicine’ and treated patients like ‘dolts and serfs’.
Even ‘tattooed bottoms’ and ‘the parable of the toast’ (his frustration at being unable to buy a slice of toast on a hospital visit to wife Marina) were used to justify pumping more private money into the NHS.
Johnson’s resounding General Election victory showed that, far from being intimidated or put off by his exotic, obscure (and at times contradictory) language, much of the British public felt exactly the opposite.
Voters, in particular those without his privileged upbringing and educational background, were drawn to him: amused, or inspired, even. Johnson can recite entire Shakespearean sonnets and has observed that the Bard coined 2,500 words — even more than Boris himself.
He maintains that a key part of Shakespeare’s appeal to the ordinary people who queued up to see his plays in the 1500s and 1600s was that they were not ‘deracinated’: they reflected the politics and culture of the day.
Shakespeare’s Henry V, wrote Johnson, was one of the most ‘rip-roaringly jingoist plays ever written’, in which England was ‘a place apart, a precious stone set in a silver sea… harking back to Agincourt’.
Johnson mobilised his own army of words to persuade ordinary men and women to pull off two famous victories: Brexit and the General Election in 2019. Handed down from Cicero via Churchill —with a touch of Wodehouse — there is nothing deracinated about his rhetoric.
He is the Bard’s patriotic Prince Hal and flatulent, fornicating Falstaff rolled into one. Without the right words, even he might vanish from the stage.
Extracted from The Borisaurus, by Simon Walters, to be published by Biteback on April 9 at £12.99. To order a copy for £9.99, visit bitebackpublishing.com
Wizard Words of Boz
‘They look at David Beckham and think, what’s the point of all this education? They think they can have Posh and the Porsche and the swish pad in Cheshire. They can’t, unless they happen to be the one in ten million who has the gifts of the banana-booted demigod.’
Used March 29, 2007, about low educational standards of young white men. England footballer David Beckham was known for his ‘banana shot’, bending the ball in flight; his wife Victoria was ‘Posh Spice’ in the Spice Girls pop group.
Used in Daily Mail, July 30, 2019. When asked to explain what his economic policy was, ‘Boosterism’ was Boris’s reply. The word was originally coined by U.S. politician J. Proctor Knott, who used it to describe remote towns trying to emphasise their importance to outsiders.
Bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot and fiddlesticks
‘The civilised world must ignore idiots who tell us that… public schools demolish all hopes most cherished for the comprehensive system. This is twaddle, bunkum, balderdash, tommyrot, piffle and fiddlesticks of the most insidious kind.’
Eton Chronicle, December 12, 1980. Boris wrote the article aged 16. Bunkum comes from 1820s America; balderdash is a 16th-century word for a jumble of drunks, tommyrot is English dialect, and fiddlesticks is from a 15th-century English nonsense word, fydylstks.
‘Have you ever driven very fast on a motorway? I have. Not long ago, I found myself at the wheel of a Ferrari Testadicazzo, or some such name, capable of 220mph. Who needs a car that fast, you ask… to bust out of the comfortable old corset of the 70mph restriction? It’s you. It’s me. It’s everyone.’
Daily Telegraph, July 12, 2001, in a call to raise the UK speed limit. There is no Ferrari Testadicazzo; it is Italian slang for ‘d**khead’.
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