The title of this article is Ancient Greek. Μπορίς Τζόνσον ἐστί πρωκτός means “Boris Johnson is an arsehole.” It is pronounced, approximately, Boris Johnson esti proktos. And now you know why it is that a doctor who dons a rubber glove, lubricates their finger and sticks it up your backside is called a proctologist. It’s because proktos is the Ancient Greek word for arsehole. Don’t ever say that this blog isn’t educational. You may be wondering why it is relevant that Boris Johnson is an arsehole in Ancient Greek. Or more accurately you may be wondering why this is especially relevant today, as knowing that Boris Johnson is an arsehole is relevant every single day that the boorish one imposes his carefully tousled self upon the public consciousness.
The reason we are discussing the arseholishness of Boris Johnson in Ancient Greek today is because on the Twittersphere as an early Christmas present, a wee video of Boris Johnson is trending in which he mangles the opening stanzas to Homer’s the Iliad in Ancient Greek. Although he claims to be speaking the words in the orginal as might have been uttered by Homer himself, his accent bears as much relationship to anything that might be recognised by an actual Greek as the stripped twig that a chimpanzee uses to scratch its proktos does to the Antikythera mechanism. In fact, just by intoning the phrase Boris Johnson esti proktos you are pronouncing Ancient Greek with considerably greater accuracy than our soi-disant Classical scholar of a Prime Minister is apparently able to.
The video was posted to social media by a Tory fanboy, who triumphantly flourished “Your move, Labour” as he was apparently secure in the knowledge that the object of his boriscrush was in an intellectual league of his own. And this would be true. It’s just that the league we are talking about is the one that teams of uncoordinated five year olds get relegated to. See, the thing about posing as a scholar of Ancient Greek is that it’s a very easy thing to do when your audience knows bugger all about Ancient Greek. Then you can wow them with your apparent erudition and they’ll all think that you’re a genius because you can quote things at them in a language that they don’t understand. They just have to take your word for it that what it is you are quoting is in fact what you say it is. That’s what makes it a cheap party trick, and not an actual exercise in erudition. All the more so when you are taking at face value the word of a known liar.
The problem with posting such things to social media is that then they can be scrutinised by those who do actually know considerably more about the subject than Boris Johnson claims to. His discourse in Ancient Greek was heard by some real Classical scholars who pointed out a number of interesting things about it. The first was that Boris Johnson’s Greek pronunciation is dire and bears little relationship to the sounds that a real Ancient Greek would have used.
Ancient Greek was pronounced differently from the modern Greek language, as you might expect of a language that has been attested for several thousand years the sounds of the language have evolved. However it’s a fairly safe bet that the Ancient Greek letter y was pronounced like German ü whereas in modern Greek it’s pronounced like English ee, while the letter ph was probably pronounced like a p followed by an h, and not like an f as it is in modern Greek. Boris Johnson doesn’t bother with any of these niceties. He just speaks Greek as though it were English, complete with that very peculiar pronunciation he has of the vowel oo, which he utters as though it were ew. Johnson doesn’t do things, they’re things he’s going to dew. And now I’ve heard that I can’t stop hearing it. I’ve added it to the long and ever lengthening list of “Things about Boris Johnson that really dew get my goat.”
This comes as no surprise to anyone who has heard Boris Johnson, who is hailed by his fans as being fluent in French, speaking in French. His accent is atrocious. It’s shockingly bad. My Spanish is fluent, but my own French is limited. I can read a newspaper, engage in a basic conversation. I don’t claim to be fluent. However I do know that my French pronunciation is considerably better than Boris Johnson’s, who comes out with a toe-curling accent that the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo would be embarrassed by.
Boris Johnson’s party trick is to quote random pieces of Ancient Greek text, when I lived in Spain my party trick was to speak Spanish with an exaggerated English accent, much to the hilarity of my Spanish friends. And I was still pronouncing it better than Boris Johnson speaks French or Ancient Greek.
However a more serious error in Boris Johnson’s party trick was pointed out by a Classical scholar on social media, who noted that although Johnson was claiming to recite the opening passage of Homer’s the Iliad, he had in fact omitted line 8, lines 17-18, and then he ended the piece with some random piece of text from an entirely different work. It’s as though you tell people that you are going to declaim Hamlet’s soliloquy, and after saying To be or not to be, you say is this a dagger I see before me.
But even if he was quoting it accurately, so what? It doesn’t require anything other than normal intelligence to remember a quote. As exercises in intellectual activity go, it’s on precisely the same level as remembering all the Scottish cup finalists and the scores since WW2 to date. There’s no more intellectual merit in remembering a passage that you studied in childhood than there is of remembering M. Marsaud est dans le jardin beep beep from your French class at school. It’s exactly the same as remembering the lyrics of David Bowie songs, or being able to recite a poem. All it proves is that you can remember something, and as we’ve seen in the case of Boris Johnson and the Iliad, he can’t remember it properly. But then he can’t remember his children’s names either. All we have learned from this episode is that Boris Johnson is as crap a classical scholar as he is at telling the truth in politics.
However there is a quote lifted directly from a venerable Ancient Greek text which sums up Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson perfectly. It comes from the play The Frogs by Aristophanes, verses 739-40
πῶς γὰρ οὐχὶ γεννάδας,
ὅστις γε πίνειν οἶδε καὶ βινεῖν μόνον
It translates as “Of course he’s a gentleman, fucking and drinking are all he knows.”
And with that, I am definitely taking a few days off for the holidays. Καλὰ Χριστούγεννα! That’s Ancient Greek for Merry Christmas!
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