Mind your language

From Jeeves to Johnson: language and literary references in Boris’s speech

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

24 February 2018

9:00 AM

In Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Bertie is moved to reward his inestimable valet for solving the unsolvable. Before requesting the sacrifice of the Alpine hat that Bertie had recently been sporting, ‘he coughed that sheep-like cough of his’. And there it was in the Foreign Secretary’s speech last week. EU integration deepened, he said, ‘in spite of sheeplike coughs of protest from the UK’.

I enjoyed the social side of squeezing myself into a chair beside my husband for Boris Johnson’s historic peroration, within sight of the strangely scaffolded tower of Big Ben. I waved to Miriam Gross and swapped a cheery word with Lord Trimble in the lift. As for the speech, its language was not simply a pile of lexical meanings, but also a series of implicit references. Civilised language is allusive. Hence the Wodehouse.


Mr Johnson has read a lot more than Wodehouse. He mentioned that, among some who fear Brexit, ‘the feelings are abating with time’. To use abate here is to invoke the anecdote about Thomas Babington Macaulay as a little boy having hot coffee spilt on his legs and responding to his hostess’s solicitous enquiry with the words: ‘Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.’ It’s in Trevelyan’s Life.

When Mr Johnson spoke of the British diaspora as ‘points of light scattered across an intermittently darkening globe’ he necessarily invoked George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address as president in 1989: ‘I have spoken of a Thousand Points of Light, of all the community organisations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.’ Allusion cuts both ways: by reinforcing a point or undermining its apparent meaning.

So, when in the speech, Mr Johnson mentioned Mrs May’s ‘Lancaster House and Florence speeches — which now have the lapidary status of the codes of Hammurabi or Moses’, he invoked a remark that James Boswell recorded Samuel Johnson making in 1775: ‘In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.’

Thus we have the indelible moderated by the revocable: it’s a case of having your cake and eating it.

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