The Downing Street party scandals have presented numerous linguistic puzzles to explore. As partygate continues, it will be interesting to see who has the final word, and how.

First published: January 2022.

Over the past month, the government crisis of “partygate” has escalated with every new headline about potential lockdown breaches by government staff. Plenty of experts have focused on guidelines and laws relevant to these alleged events, but the ongoing controversy has also been peculiarly linguistic in nature.

Journalists and politicians alike struggled over the precise meaning of phrases like party, social occasion, business meeting, work event, gathering and more. This spread to issues such as whether certain forms of attire or the presence of food or alcohol changed an event from one type to another.

But it’s not just the definitions of words that caused problems. Boris Johnson apologised for attending an event on May 20 in the garden of Downing Street. In linguistics, speech act theory deals with the nature of communicative phenomena like apologising, requesting, promising and so forth. For a speech act to be “felicitous” – to have effectively achieved its aim – the theory argues that, amongst other criteria, it must contain the necessary “propositional content”. In an apology, this would be some sort of wrongdoing that the apologising party is responsible for.

In the text alone, it is difficult to unambiguously identify the cause for Johnson’s apology. He states that he went to the garden to “thank groups of staff”, that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”, and that he went back into his office to continue working. None of these clearly amount to a failure. Similarly, Johnson says that he “should have sent everyone back inside”, but this comes only a sentence after noting that the garden had been “in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus”, so this also isn’t clear-cut.

The closest we seem to get to the necessary propositional content is, “there were things we simply did not get right”, but even this is vague. From the perspective of speech act theory, we could argue that, though Johnson offers his heartfelt apologies, it’s not especially clear, linguistically, what the propositional content of that apology is intended to be.

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Meanwhile, as politicians supported Johnson’s apology, many fell into one of the traps that the English language so often sets for us. MP Chris Philp said on air that Johnson, “apologised really fulsomely for what happened. He did it publicly, and he did it fulsomely”. Similarly, MP Christopher Chope went on to praise Johnson’s “most abject and fulsome apology”.

It’s easy to intuit the meaning of fulsome that Philp, Chope and countless others over the years have arrived at. It contains the headword “full” and the suffix “-some”, and we expect it to follow the same pattern as words like loathsome, bothersome, and tiresome.

Alas, sometimes members of a word “family” go in their own direction (see: awe, awesome, awestruck, then … awful) and fulsome has chosen a similar fate. When used about language, the Oxford English Dictionary defines fulsome as, “offensive or objectionable owing to excess or lack of moderation; too lavish, overdone”.

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The final word

We now turn to the press. New revelations suggested that Downing Street staff had attended events the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral, resulting in headlines such as:

Downing Street apologise to Buckingham Palace for party the night before Philip’s funeral. (The Mirror)
No 10 apologises to Buckingham Palace for ‘parties’ on eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. (The Independent)

Though the situation is serious, these are amusing formulations: a street (or building) is apologising to a palace. This is a case of metonymy, where an attribute stands in place of an object or person. For instance, we call languages “tongues”, officers “brass”, and newspapers “the press”.

Why use metonymy in headlines? It may be that journalists couldn’t identify the apologising parties, or those individuals may be relatively unknown. If so, writing headlines about them becomes difficult. By contrast, the locations are globally famous, and therefore accessible to a far wider audience, making them easy shorthand in place of specific people.

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For our final example, we turn back to when the first news broke about possible Christmas parties in Downing Street. A spokesperson told the press that, “COVID rules have been followed at all times”. The next day during Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson added that, “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10”.

However, by early December, there is a linguistic shift. When asked again about the events, Johnson replied, “I certainly broke no rules”. The interesting matter here is that the first two statements are passive voice constructions that broadly account for many people, but the third statement is active and only accounts for Johnson.

Of course, the nature of language is that it often isn’t clear-cut, and different people will perceive all these examples and more in different ways. As partygate continues, it will be interesting to see who has the final word, and how.

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Dr Claire Hardaker, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Corpus Linguistics, Lancaster University.



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