How has Boris Johnson’s Classical Education Shaped his Rhetoric Style?

Boris Johnson excelled in classics from a young age. He started studying Latin and Greek at the preparatory boarding school Ashdown House, and went on to win a scholarship to study at Eton. It was here that he started to develop his distinctive personality. He was very successful in his co-curricular endeavours, so much so that he neglected his schoolwork, causing his teachers to doubt his ‘commitment to the real business of scholarship’. Indeed, he graduated from Oxford with a 2:1, and was deeply disappointed not to get a first. Despite this, it is clear that he took a lot away from his classical education, and this is particularly evident in the speech he gave after winning the recent December election.

The speech starts ‘My friends, well we did it. We did it. We pulled it off didn’t we – we pulled it off, we broke the deadlock, we ended the gridlock, we smashed the roadblock.’ There is a lot of repetition here, be it emphatic or merely an epitome of Johnson’s blustering speech pattern. What is certainly deliberate, however, is the homoioteleuton of ‘deadlock’, ‘gridlock’, and ‘roadblock’. Homoioteleuton is the repetition of endings in words. This is harder to do in English than Latin or Greek, as English nouns are not inflected. Nevertheless, it is used effectively here to draw attention to the difficulty of the emergency election without the cheesy obviousness of true rhyme. His use of the first person plural pronoun should also be noted, as this makes the audience feel personally engaged.

Another example of repetition in this speech is ‘This election means that getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people.’ Here, this tricolon of adjectives is effective in emphasising the apparent desire of the people to get Brexit done. However, while in this instance it is likely a considered choice, Johnson often uses tricolons of synonyms as a stalling tactic. While this appears more intelligent than simply umming and erring, once one is first aware of this habit, it is easy to spot when he is at a loss during interviews. Nick Clegg once described Johnson as ‘like Donald Trump with a thesaurus’.

Johnson ends his speech with ‘Let’s get Brexit done. But first, my friends, let’s get breakfast done.’ The plosive alliteration of Brexit and breakfast lends humour to the speech, as is characteristic of Johnson’s carefully cultivated persona. It also serves to drive home the point that he intends to get Brexit done. This is an example of the intelligent mind underneath his banterous public image. This mind has indeed been honed by classical education, so much so that it appears to have seeped into his subconcious, as even when he appears to erratically ramble, classical grammatic patterns are evident.