With many years experience as a journalist and editor, coupled with a delightfully eccentric character, Boris Johnson can usually be relied upon for a catchy soundbite- indeed, there's even a website out there which tracks them (and him). So in the face of allegations about his private life that ultimately cost him his position as shadow arts minister, we could expect more than a terse denial or legally safe "no comment". His "inverted pyramid of piffle" doesn't disappoint, but is more than just a quirky Borisism- being irresistable to quote, it's appeared in much of the media coverage of the supposed affair, and serves to dismiss such speculation as nonsense far more effectively than any carefully scripted press statement could.

But although this charming bit of alliteration is original to Boris, it wasn't a spontaneous creation in response to this month's events- rather, Boris has been using it for at least three years. This serves as more evidence that the crazy-haired one is in fact somewhat sharper than his carefully-crafted bumbling image suggests. It's probable that it's become inextricably linked to his recent misfortune, but in earlier use it was wielded in the defense of others. Writing in The Telegraph way back in 2001, about Michael Portillo's surprise defeat in a contest for leadership of the Conservative Party, he offered:

"You could at this point compose an enormous sermon about why he lost, the hidden agenda of the newspapers, the slightly fascistic tone of some of the articles about "fatherhood". You could prose on about his inner torment, complex personality, artistic temperament, proud Spanish origins and blah blah fishcakes. But since Michael Portillo lost by only one vote to the man everybody said was the front-runner, I think you will agree that any such article would be an inverted pyramid of piffle."

Then, two years later, he leaps to the defense of Prince Charles, who was receiving a tabloid battering over "damaging allegations" which Boris, once again, declares to be nothing more than "An Inverted Pyramid of Piffle". There is a common thread here- that of stories which are (to Boris) more the product of fevered editorial minds than having any basis in reality:

"Is it the media's insatiable lust for readers and viewers, that they will print what they know to be the most pathetic and ludicrous lies? Is our culture really so depraved, that the doorkeepers of Fleet Street's palaces of entertainment will promise any excitement, no matter how perverted and fantastical, to lure the punters within?"

But what, you might ask, does it all mean? The etymology of piffle can be traced back to a verb meaning "act feebly" but now refers to an object or argument generated by such a (lack of) effort- a load of old twaddle, in other words. It's possible that Boris is fond of its sound for personal reasons- his full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. The Inverted Pyramid, meanwhile, is an article-writing style which places the meat of the story at the top, to grab the reader immediately or alternatively let them move on without missing too much of import. But perhaps the point is best expressed by the image conjured up, rather than the pure journalistic meaning- an inverted pyramid is already geometrical folly, being literally baseless, and so one comprised entirely of nonsense can have no hope but to collapse in ruins around its creator. Boris may be out of the shadow cabinet, but with a turn of phrase like this, his future as a writer seems sound.

Reference- Telegraph articles require registration, but bugmenot.com comes to the rescue.
  • First quote from This is no fight for the Tory soul - there is no such thing, The Telegraph, 19/07/2001 (omit linebreaks)
  • Second quote from Haven't we grown out of king-killing?, The Telegraph, 13/11/2003
  • Boriswatch, for his full name
  • Recent media coverage.