Mind your language

Is the Duke of York’s title really ‘untenable’?

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

‘Nurse! The tenaculum!’ exclaimed my husband in the manner of James Robertson Justice playing the surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt. I’m not sure I should describe the work of the tenaculum, in case you’re having breakfast, but be sure it holds as fast as a Staffordshire terrier.

The motive for my husband’s outburst was the declaration by yet another politician that Boris Johnson’s position was untenable. Yet there seems to be no end of people who keep hold of a position declared by others to be untenable.

The other day, Rachael Maskell, the Labour MP for York, tweeted: ‘It’s untenable for the Duke of York to cling on to his title another day longer.’ Anybody would think he was Perkin Warbeck. But no matter how shrilly she tweeted he held on tenaciously.


Last week untenability began to be attributed to the former editor of this magazine as prime minister. On Radio 4, William Wragg called his position untenable. Mr Wragg was described as a ‘senior Tory’, though he has only just celebrated his 34th birthday. No doubt the vice-chairmanship of the 1922 committee brings seniority.

From then on, there was an untenablebidding war. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, said it openly. Andrew Bridgen, married to a Serbian opera singer, said it ‘sadly’. Tim Loughton said it ‘regretfully’.

Zara Janjua, a TV presenter who writes for the Scottish Sun, thought ‘Boris Johnson’s position now is untenable’ because ‘the winged monkeys have turned on their keeper’. This reference to The Wizard of Oz had in the past been deployed by Dominic Cummings, I think as a label for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party crew, though it now seems to have been transferred to ex-Boristas.

As a clincher, Ms Janjua wrote that the PM had been caught with his trousers down and his ‘chonies were just dangling round his buttocks’. Readers of the Scottish Sun may have chuckled, but she had lost me. I had to look it up. Chonies, spelt chonisin Spanish, is a Mexican term for underpants, apparently derived from calzones. Once those become untenable, the risk of tripping is indeed grave.

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