On 13 February 2018, Boris Johnson made a widely-reported speech directed, apparently, at sections of the UK population wishing to remain in the EU or, failing that, to achieve a situation where the UK is technically outside the EU but retains many features of membership. As a self-confessed member of this group I appreciated Mr Johnson taking the time to speak to me. I was less happy with what he said.
Others have commented on the substance – or lack of it – in Johnson’s speech. It was long on generalisations and short on detail. People have also commented on his use of Latin (post hoc ergo propter hoc) and of words derived from Greek (autarkic – etymology courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary), presumably designed to demonstrate his credentials as a member of the ‘elite’ he was criticising.
What struck me was his use of language to imply the stupidity of his opponents, while all the time appearing to be arguing reasonably with them. It’s not a new point, to say that language puts a spin on events, but it always fascinating to see this in action. Johnson appears to use three main strategies:
- He describes his opponents’ views in terms of feelings (Affect) rather than in terms of ideas or experiences.
- He uses an indefinite ‘some’ and ‘somehow’ when representing the views of his opponents.
- He uses words and phrases with negative connotations when describing the EU, and to imply his opponents’ views of the EU.
We can see each of these in action.
- Use of Affect to represent the views of his opponents.
Johnson uses words describing feelings of fear and anxiety to refer to the attitudes and beliefs of ‘remainers’:
- …some of the fears about the Brexit vote
- …those who still have anxieties
- …three types of concern
- The second anxiety…
- …the economic fear
- People fear the disruption…
- …these economic anxieties are intensified by other fears…
And so on. This implies that opponents of Brexit do not have considered objections to leaving the EU – they (we) are neurotic individuals whose views are nothing more than irrational fears. This culminates in the Johnson-coined word Brexchosis (Brex + chosis?), apparently by analogy with psychosis. According to the OED, there is no suffix ‘chosis’, but there is one ‘-osis’, so the ‘ch’ would appear to be there to emphasise the similarity with ‘psychosis’. ‘-osis’, we are told, ‘usually denot[es] a condition of disease, disorder, excess, or infection’.
- Use of disparaging ‘some’ and ‘somehow’
These words are used to cast the opposing view in a negative light, without making an overt comment on it. Consider, for example ‘Brexit has made our geostrategic position more vulnerable’ – this would be a straightforward representation of a point of view. Putting ‘somehow’ in it, as Johnson does, makes the idea seem ridiculous – as if there were no possible defined way that our position could become vulnerable. The same point can be made about ‘we are (somehow) going to become more insular’.
Similarly, he uses ‘some’ to indicate ridicule of supposed opponents’ views: ‘some 1950s menu’, ‘some spasm of bad manners’, ‘some reactionary Faragiste concept’.
Here are the examples:
- …has made our geostrategic position somehow more vulnerable
- …we are somehow going to become more insular
- It’s not about returning to some autarkic 1950s menu…
- …it is some unBritish spasm of bad manners.
- …that is surely not some reactionary Faragiste concept
- Use negative connotations in describing the EU and his opponents
Johnson avoids overtly criticising the European Union in his speech – it is a good institution, he says, but not for us, because the UK is so different in character from other countries. However, the verbs he uses to describe the UK’s participation in EU activities are limited to those indicating restraint and obligation: ‘be bound up with’, ‘submit to’, ‘imposed’, ‘having to comply’, and ‘remain lashed to’. Laws passed by the EU parliament are described as numerous, complex, and ultimately oppressive: ‘the panoply of EU legislation’, ‘ever vaster and more intricate’, ‘the EU legal order’, ‘the minute prescriptions’, ‘EU regimes’.
A final sneer comes in the clause ‘…the single market is not quite the Eden of uniformity that it is cracked up to be..’. Now this is very different from saying ‘the single market does not in fact impose uniform regulations’. The phrase ‘Eden of uniformity’ implies that Johnson’s opponents regard uniformity (dull, inflexible uniformity) as an ideal goal, while ‘it’s not all it’s cracked up to be’ is of course a common way of asserting that something commonly thought of as wholly positive is not so. Johnson puts words into his opponents’ mouths without appearing to do so.
In his speech of February 2018, Boris Johnson ostensibly addresses his opponents in a conciliatory, reasoned manner. He says that he wish to alleviate fears and bring the nation, united, into a new life outside the EU. But throughout the speech his words speak against him. Far from reaching out to the opposition he constantly chooses language that disparages, demeans and ridicules their supposed views. It is pretty shabby behaviour.