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Who was Cincinnatus - and why does Boris use so many Latin words? By Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Sep 06, 2022

Credit: Ben Shread

Why does Boris use Latin so much? His old colleague Harry Mount has the answer

In his resignation speech today, the retiring Prime Minister said, "Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough."

He referred to him, too, in March 2013, talking to a schoolchild in Norwood, saying, ‘If, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough to serve in that office [of Prime Minister], I wouldn’t, of course, say no.’

Who was Cincinnatus? He was a retired Roman statesman and farmer, called on to save Rome in 458 BC. In just 16 days, he saved Rome from invaders. He then returned to his farm and picked up his plough.

This is classic Boris Johnson behaviour. He constantly shifts register between plain, simple Anglo-Saxon words and more complex, pompous Latinate ones.

He expanded on this art in 2007 at a Latin-themed charity evening.

“The thing about Latinate words is they’re evasive,” said Boris. “There’s a whole world of difference between ‘You’re sacked’ and ‘We want to restructure the whole operation in the M4 corridor’. Alan Clark used the device to brilliant effect in the Scott Inquiry. ‘I was economical with the actualité’ isn’t just brilliant – it’s also less self-condemnatory than ‘I lied.’ You can see the effect at work in Apocalypse Now in the scene where they’re discussing what to do with Colonel Kurtz, the Marlon Brando character.”

Boris proceeded to recite the script from memory:

Lucas: Your mission is to proceed up the Nung river in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba – follow it, learn what you can along the way. When you find the colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available, and terminate the colonel’s command.

Willard: Terminate... the colonel? civilian: Terminate with extreme prejudice.

“Now that last bit,” continued Boris, “is a terrific bit of Latinate English. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice’ is a much more elusive order than ‘Kill him’.”

He also understands the comic power of shifting between the Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers. Through his studies of what he calls the “crunchy” linguistics of Latin and Greek, Boris learnt to examine the building blocks of English up close.

As Evelyn Waugh said of his own classical education, he learnt “that words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity”. Boris knows when to depart from those meanings to produce metaphor or vulgarity, and sometimes both at the same time.

When describing the location of his old office in City Hall – “I’m on the, er, upper epidermis of the gonad. Somewhere near the seminal vesical, I expect” – the joke depended on using the formal, scientific, Latinate terms for effect. We are more used to Anglo-Saxon terms being used for vulgarity and swear words – they become much funnier when formalised into technical, medical language.

Boris also often flicks between the two registers of high, classical art and low, juicy blockbuster for contrasted comic effect. His favourite film is the Ben Stiller vehicle, Dodgeball. He says he identifies with the Incredible Hulk – “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets”.

Depending on the occasion, he’ll cherry-pick from his high- and low-brow memory banks. A few years ago, I remember coming across a serious article on Horace by him in the Spectator – no jokes, no Incredible Hulk references. What was going on?

It was only when I got to the end that I saw the article had been taken from a speech he’d given to Classics dons at the Horatian Society. Again, he was calibrating – up against the top brains, he jettisoned the trashy references.

Charles Moore noticed the classical education being smuggled in like this in a 2002 Telegraph article by Boris. In it, the then MP for Henley recalled being pelted with a bread roll by a Labour councillor at the Mayor of Henley’s annual dinner.

Boris opened the article by describing the arc of the bread roll as it sailed over the banqueting tables of Henley Town Hall. Leaving the roll frozen in mid-air, he turned to the serious meat of his column – some obscure aspect of Tory policy. And then, as the article came to an end, he returned to the flight of the “mini French baguette”.

Boris later admitted to Charles Moore that he was consciously using an ancient rhetorical device, much favoured by the Roman orator and politician, Cicero. The trick is called digressio, where you turn to a secondary, diverting story, while leaving your exciting original story hanging in mid-air – literally, in this case. In order to learn what happened to the bread roll, we read on in suspense, our appetite whetted, waiting for the mini baguette to hit the blond fright wig – as indeed it did.

I once asked him, “I was just wondering whether you ever use any classical devices in your speeches or your articles.”

“Oh yes, I most certainly do,” he said, slipping on his ultra-serious skin, “there’s one particular Roman oratorical trick I use the whole time. Couldn’t survive without it.”

“Oh really. What is it?”

“It’s absolutely crucial – it’s called imbecilio.”

There, in a nutshell, is Johnsonian wit: the overstated, Latin-themed plea to seriousness, with the rug pulled out from under it by over-advertised stupidity.

Boris is keen on classical idioms, particularly anacoluthon – the sudden change of syntax in a sentence. He has even created his own form of anacoluthon – faux-ignorant anacoluthon, you might call it; suddenly breaking up his sentences to attack his own thought process: “As I was saying – what was I saying? – can someone tell me what I was saying?”

Andrew Gimson told me, “He’ll know the classical names of oratorical devices but he hasn’t got the aridity to be an academic Classicist. He learnt everything he knows by the age of eleven or twelve, from Clive Williams, his prep-school master. After that, his teachers just couldn’t get him to work. The story goes that, at Oxford, he went and cried alone in a cinema when he failed to get a First. But the truth of it is that he didn’t do nearly enough work. Even an hour a week would have been enough, but he didn’t do even that.”

I once asked one of his old Oxford Classics tutors about Boris’s chances of making it to Downing Street.

Capax imperii nisi imperasset...” said the old tutor, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: “He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor.”

Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever by Harry Mount and John Davie is published on October 13 (Bloomsbury)