After Boris Johnson's downfall, he may wish to ponder the rich language of friendship and betrayal – Susie Dent

“The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies.”

Anonymous words that Boris Johnson might ruefully reflect upon today. His downfall came not from the Opposition, but from those within his inner circle, who ultimately made his astonishing defiance as brittle as Julius Caesar’s when he spotted his trusted Brutus among the conspirators sent to topple him.

The events of last week were true to the etymology of “betrayal”, whose origins lie in the Latin trahere, to “hand over”. The language of friendship, and of its dramatic withdrawal, is just as instructive, politically and elsewhere.

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In 1765, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson included in his Dictionary of the English Language the word “backfriend”, which he defined as “a friend backwards; an enemy in secret”.

Its successor in pretence is today’s “frienemy”, a word that has described a seeming friend, and their handshake of treachery, since 1891. As they say, snakes (and Michael Gove) don’t hiss any more, they call you “mate” instead.

For more two-facedness, we need look no further than the word “hostility”. For the Romans, a hostis was a stranger, one who might be a guest at a hostel or hospice.

But as strangers have long been mistrusted, so hostis generated “hostile”, in case that guest turned out to be the enemy. Which means that hostility was the turning of guests upon the host, a metaphor that seemed particularly apt for Johnson’s Cabinet as it rapidly emptied.

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Shortly before resigning, Boris Johnson sacked Michael Gove from the Cabinet, with a No 10 insider referring to Gove as a 'snake' (Picture: Andrew Parsons Pool/Getty Images)Shortly before resigning, Boris Johnson sacked Michael Gove from the Cabinet, with a No 10 insider referring to Gove as a 'snake' (Picture: Andrew Parsons Pool/Getty Images)
Shortly before resigning, Boris Johnson sacked Michael Gove from the Cabinet, with a No 10 insider referring to Gove as a 'snake' (Picture: Andrew Parsons Pool/Getty Images)

Any host facing backfriends might want to pay special attention to their drink. If staff at Downing Street bring their guests their beverages on a silver salver, they might appreciate the fact that “salver” originally meant “fore-tasting” – the testing by servants of any refreshment served to the ruler for traces of deadly poison.

Of course, the host might equally take such a prospect with a pinch of salt, an expression with unexpectedly deadly beginnings.

Its story is based on the startling (and probably apocryphal) discovery made by the Roman general Pompey who, after conquering the enemy country of Pontos and searching the royal palace of Mithridates VI, discovered that the king, convinced of imminent attack by his opponents, made himself immune to various poisons by swallowing small doses of them.

These he took with a pinch of salt – cum grano salis – to help them go down easily. Cripes, as another leader might have put it.

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Clearly the Prime Minister would have preferred a love-potion to poison, one that ensured obedience and equanimity like that served in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play in which the rambunctious character Bottom is nicknamed “Bully” by the rest of his comedy crew.

“Bully” also straddles the friend and enemy axis, for it was once a term of endearment that comes from the Dutch for “lover”. Evidently bullies were quite aware of how much they were adored, so that they became swaggering braggadocios and hectors, ensuring bully’s modern sense.

Between the friends and the foes, there will always be the sycophants in the middle. According to the literal meaning of “sycophant” itself (literally, a ‘fig-shower’), these were those who silently offered people in authority the contemptuous hand gesture of a “fig”, a thumb wedged between two fingers, whilst flattering them to their faces.

In the 17th century, they would have been known as the “catchfarts”: servants who followed the boss a bit too closely for comfort.

So much for the enemies in secret: what about those who are faithful and true? The word “friend” is a relative of “free”, for it first described an individual within a group or family who was not a slave, and therefore not beholden to any boss.

Which makes you wonder: can there ever be friends amongst political servants? Those who remained loyal to the Prime Minister will insist upon the affirmative. The key, it seems, is to differentiate between those who have your back, and those who want to stab you in it.

Boris Johnson has clearly found out the hard way. The loyal mingle with the snakes and the shoulder-clappers, until friendship and treachery become indistinguishable. Perhaps Tennessee Williams had it right when he said: “We have to distrust each other. It is our only defence against betrayal.”

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.



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