Language Log 2019-09-10
Boris Johnson called Jeremy Corbyn a "big girl's blouse" in parliament last Wednesday, and on Friday it was revealed that he had referred to David Cameron as a "girly swot" in a cabinet note. For Americans not versed in British slang, a swot is "one who studies hard", according to the OED. The Guardian story tells us that
It is not the first time Johnson has used the insult about the former prime minister. In 2013, when he was London mayor, Johnson called Cameron and his brother, Jo, "girly swots" for gaining first-class degrees at university, when the current prime minister had to make do with a 2:1.
and links to a tweet from MP Allison McGovern asking "What is it about big smart women Boris Johnson doesn't like?"
A possible clue emerged during the Leo Varadkar's contribution to yesterday's joint press conference with Johnson:
The Irish Prime Minister said:
If there is no deal, it'll cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike. Not so much on the continent. And whatever happens, we'll have to get back to the negotiating table quite quickly. And when we do, the first items on the agenda will be citizens' rights, the financial settlement, and the Irish border — all issues which we had resolved in the withdrawal agreement made with your predecessor, an agreement made in good faith by twenty eight governments. But if there is a deal, and I think it's possible, we'll enter talks on a future relationship agreement between the E.U. and the U.K. It's going to be very tough, we'll have to deal with issues like tariffs, fishing rights, product standards, state aid. And it will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments. Prime minister, negotiating F.T.A.s with the E.U. and the U.S., and securing their ratification in less than three years, I think is going to be a herculean task for you. But we do want to be your friend, and your ally — your Athena — in doing so.
As the Guardian explains ("Why did Varadkar say he wanted to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules? The Irish PM cited a Greek goddess famous for knocking Hercules out to prevent him causing further damage", 9/9/2019):
In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena did assist Hercules as an ally during the performance of his 12 labours. She provided, for example, bronze krotala – noise-makers similar to castanets – to help him scare off the flock of Stymphalian birds. And in some versions of the tale she was also of service to him by returning to their rightful place the golden apples of the gods that Hercules had been asked to obtain.
But it is perhaps her most dramatic intervention in the life of Hercules that Varadkar was obliquely referring to.
Hercules was obliged to perform the 12 labours as an act of penitence after he had descended into madness and murdered his wife, Megara, and his children. At the moment he was about to go on and kill the man who had fostered him, Amphitryon, Athena intervened. Seeing that he had gone mad, she struck Hercules down and knocked him out to prevent him causing more bloodshed and doing more damage than he had already done.
Very much what you would hope for from a friend and ally, but maybe not what you would want to hear on the international stage at a moment of tense diplomacy.
Athena is the goddess of "wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill" — the original "girly swot".