Ben Schott

Speaker-speak

His linguistic antics must be heard to be believed

Much has recently been written about the incumbent Commons Speaker, from (vigorously denied) allegations of bullying to (less vigorously denied) suggestions of Brexit-foxing chicanery. And to call John Bercow a ‘Marmite politician’ is to state the obvious.

A little less obvious is his idiosyncratic style of address — the bizarre collision of a Dickensian clerk with aspirations to eloquence, a stern headmaster out of P. G. Wodehouse, and a contestant on Just a Minute desperate not to hesitate, deviate or repeat.

Some of the Speaker’s vocal fireworks are plain to hear. His musical calls of ‘Jer-emy Cor-byn’ have been compiled into an ascending harmonic scale, and his strangled cries of ‘Oaaaaaarderrrrrrrrr’ have achieved social-media virality. However, many of his other verbal tics sneak up on you over time, and generously reward Hansard research.

Although not a lawyer, Bercow takes pedantic delight in ‘legal doublets’ (real or imagined), including ‘benefit or purpose’, ‘manifest and incontrovertible’, ‘shyness and reticence’, ‘adroitness and dexterity’, ‘cajole or exhort’, ‘encouragement or comfort’, ‘foxed and befuddled’, ‘fastidious and precise’. And so pleased is he with his gag, ‘the flow of his eloquence and the eloquence of his flow’, the chiasmus has passed his lips at least 13 times, including twice on 16 October 2014.

This habit of using ten words when two would suffice is often displayed when calling for concision: ‘If colleagues while of course expounding with characteristic eloquence can do so with exemplary brevity, that will be received heartily in the House.’

Over time, such orotundity forms what the Irish satirist Myles na gCopaleen called a ‘Catechism of Cliché’. In the Lexicon Bercowicum discourtesy is rank, tones are mellifluous, delinquents are incorrigible, absence is rued, anticipation is eager, speculation is idle, and a point is either noted en passant or is ‘so blindingly obvious that only a very clever person could fail to grasp it’.

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