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The Borisaurus: The Dictionary of Boris Johnson by Simon Walters

Simon Walters has thought of an amusing pretext for collecting some of Boris Johnson’s most bizarre remarks. He will tell us what the classical and other references actually mean.

Walters, who is now assistant editor of The Daily Mail, is brilliant at working out what politicians actually mean: at cutting through the verbiage and obfuscation and writing the splash, which is what for 19 years he did as political editor of The Mail on Sunday.

But he does not, thank heaven, begin his brief introduction by dwelling on scoops past. He instead remarks that in August 2008 he “first experienced Latinate evasion” at Johnson’s hands.

They were at the closing ceremony for the Olympic Games in Peking, where Johnson as Mayor of London delivered his “ping-pong is coming home” speech, a scene-stealing comic masterpiece which one can enjoy watching on YouTube.

The Latinate evasion had come 24 hours earlier, when Walters interviewed Johnson, and already knew, as a good journalist does, what story he was looking for:

“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.”

Walters has to get a wifi connection in order to learn that Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman of great virtue who had given up public life but returned from his farm to save Rome from invasion:

“The denarius dropped: Boris did want to oust Dave. 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.”

Johnson puts a smile on people’s faces, while also producing good copy with such prodigality that long before he became Prime Minister, or even looked as if he had much chance of becoming Prime Minister, television shows yearned to have him on and journalists were anxious to interview him.

To tell the truth without adornment sounds like a good idea, but in practise can become dull. Voters want a performance which goes beyond what the cautious careerists can provide – if you doubt that, look at Donald Trump.

Some of Johnson’s performances have been thoroughly disreputable. Towards the end of 2004, when news of his affair with Petronella Wyatt broke, Walters asked him if the story was true and Johnson dismissed it as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”.

This memorable expression was not, unfortunately, true, and gave the tabloids the chance to seize the moral high ground and prove him a liar.

In this dictionary of expressions used by Johnson, Walters has an entry for “Inverted pyramid of piffle”, even though there is no obscurity about what it means.

We learn, however, that Johnson used the phrase on at least two previous occasions, and that it qualifies as a “Borisism”, the term Walters uses for what appears to be an original coinage, of which there are many.

I looked up the Telegraph article in 2001 in which “an inverted pyramid of  piffle” is first found, as the final flourish in a vibrant paragraph in which Johnson suggests it would be wrong to over-interpret the defeat of Michael Portillo in that year’s Tory leadership race.

He goes on to suggest that although the two remaining candidates, Ken Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith, disagree about Europe, the victory of either would probably leave the result of any referendum Tony Blair calls about Europe completely unaffected:

“The experience of other countries’ euro-referendums is that the best way to achieve a ‘No’ is to ensure that the political establishment is in favour of a ‘Yes’, in which case the public has the exquisite pleasure of telling them all to go to hell.”

That observation was proved correct 15 years later, when Cameron held the referendum Blair had avoided. And here are Johnson’s final remarks in that piece:

“Whatever happens, let no one say that this is a struggle for the Tory party’s soul. There is no such thing. The Tory party is a vast organism animated by a few vague common principles such as tradition and love of country, and above all by the pursuit and retention of power.”

How free that leaves a traditional Tory statesman, such as Johnson, to pursue the pragmatic course the country requires.

Before writing my life of Johnson, first published in 2006, I reread a great many of his articles, was impressed by how little effort was needed to get through that curious autobiographical mixture of Rabelais and P.G. Wodehouse, and found that in most of his commentaries, however much energy he may devote to keeping the tone light, he does actually say something.

A few classical terms whose meaning it is hard to hold in one’s head – Anaphora, Chiasmus, Ignoratio elenchi – are defined here, which is helpful.

Many other terms – Feckless, Filching, Gobsmacked, Laggard, Sclerotic, Scrumple, Scum, Snooty, to give only a few examples – need no elucidation.

But the words themselves are enjoyable words, and each is followed by a short passage in which Johnson has made striking use of them.

In his Autobiography, Edward Gibbon said of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the obscurity of a learned language.”

The same cannot be said of Johnson. Walters’ compilation is a reminder that licentious expressions occur with remarkable frequency in his work, both in English and in about a dozen foreign languages.

In an article in 2001 for The Daily Telegraph calling for the speed limit to be raised from 70 mph, Johnson related that “I found myself at the wheel of a Ferrari Testadicazzo, or some such name, capable of 220 mph.”

Walters cannot recall a model called that, and discovers it is Italian for “dickhead”. The car reviews Johnson wrote for GQ are suffused with sex.

Johnson is a Chaucerian, a vulgarian, a Merry Englander who revels in his freedom to use sexual imagery whenever he feels like using it.

He delights in teasing the Puritans who, the moment they condemn him for using expressions which are in dubious taste, reveal themselves as joyless, censorious and self-important, so just the sort of people Johnson’s voters would like to annoy.

His language puts him on the side of those who want to laugh at the powers that be: a remarkable feat, when one considers that he himself is one of the powers that be.

Dante, Molesworth and Roy Jenkins are among the influences on Johnson’s speech patterns which receive inadequate acknowledgement in these pages, but one of the good things about Walters is that he is not trying to be a pedant.

He says “Johnson can recite entire Shakespearean sonnets”, an amusing understatement.

Not mentioned here is the story of how, while working for The Daily Telegraph as a young man in Brussels, Johnson entered – after a disagreement in Strasbourg with Michael Binyon of The Times about where “the true, the blushful Hippocrene” comes from (Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale) – a challenge to see which of them could recite 130 of the greatest poems in English.

Binyon made an alarming discovery about his opponent: “To my horror he had a considerable knowledge of long poems. He could recite reams of Milton.”

This light-hearted book went to press before the pandemic. Walters quotes an interview with Piers Morgan in 2007 in which, after being told by that stern figure that he must stop playing the buffoon if he aspires to lead the country, Johnson says:

“It will get easier when there is a big job to do and I can get on and do it. These points you make about image and buffoonery will fall away.”

Johnson’s critics tend not to realise that it is possible for someone to be at one and the same time entranced by jokes and deeply serious. They will not enjoy this compilation. Other people will.

121 comments for: Buffoonery, suffused sex and Latinate evasion: how Johnson’s language helped him become Prime Minister

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