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Mon 16 September 2019
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(v.) to talk boastfully or pompously; to talk without actually saying anything meaningful

This week the race to find Britain’s Next Top Prime Minister continued apace, with Boris Johnson grudgingly sitting down to two key interviews—one with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, the other with Talk Radio’s Ross Kempsell. 

The BBC’s interview saw Johnson outline—in his words—the “abundant, abundant” solutions he had to offer to solve the Irish border problem. “But they don’t exist yet,” countered Kuenssberg. “They do, actually,” Johnson gamely replied, before reconsidering his position and admitting, “you’re right Laura.” 

But a little fact like these solutions not actually existing wasn’t going to be a problem though, because now, “there is a real positive energy about getting it done.” 

All set were we to make a word meaning something along the lines of “belief in the power of positive energy” our Word of the Week, but then, just 24 hours later, everything changed. Despite Johnson single-handedly solving the Northern Ireland issue, it was his Talk Radio interview the following day that took the majority of the headlines. 

Dismissing the fact that he hadn’t actually solved anything or made any cohesive points about progressing the Brexit process as “defeatism,” Johnson was asked what he does to relax. “I like to paint,” he replied, after a pause seemingly just long enough to invent a hobby for himself. “I like to make things.” 

And then, the confession that launched a thousand headlines: “I get old wooden crates … And I turn it into a bus and … I paint the passengers enjoying themselves.” 

Alas, everything that followed those immortal lines was lost to the footnotes—including the fact that, if he could be any figure from history, Johnson would switch places with Pericles of Athens, because he was a “great orator” of whom it was said “that he thundered and lightened when he spoke.” 

As oratorical styles go, however, Johnson is less thunder and lightning, more—er, muggy summer drizzle? 

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If these two interviews proved anything, it’s that Johnson is the master of saying nothing of any substance in as many words as possible: the fact that he has no extant solution for the Irish border didn’t stop him from discussing his solution at considerable length. And the fact that he could wax lyrical about his handmade wooden buses full of smiling passengers had its presumable desired effect and bumped all those stories about his stormy relationship (and the questionable photo produced to cement its veracity) off the front pages. 

Happily, there’s a word for this talking for talking’s sake: to bloviate is to talk boastfully or pompously or to speak voluminously without actually saying anything meaningful. 

Bloviation, in the words of former US President Warren Harding—himself a master of the technique—is “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing.” Even etymologically, this word is all about the false impressions; it might feel like some kind of learned rhetorical term, but there are no classical roots to speak of here. Instead, bloviate no older than the mid-1800s, and has its roots in a fairly nonsensical American slang formation probably based on an awkward mishmash of the verb blow, and the invented suffixal tag –iate, modelled on words like deviate and enunciate

It became quite the catchword of nineteenth-century politics before falling out of fashion around the early 1900s. It’s clung on to the outskirts of the English vocabulary ever since, familiar only to verbose political commentators and avid crossworders alike. 

Depending on who now wins this two-horse race to be PM, however, it might be a word just about due its resurgence. 

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink 

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