Alas, poor Boris: PM’s go-to word for delivering bad news

It is the word the prime minister turns to when he is about to deliver bad news. And it’s become the signal for the rest of us to brace ourselves.

Nick Hopkins

Alas, it seems, is the word poor Boris knows all too well.

And according to the team behind the BBC TV show QI, it has become a staple during parliamentary debate too – it was said more than 80 times in the House of Commons in November 2020, more than any other month since 1800.

A now-unfashionable word, with its origins from Old French in the mid-13th century, “alas” was used by Shakespeare in one of his most famous and misquoted lines. In a graveyard, clutching the skull of the court jester, Hamlet declares: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio …”

Then, as now, it is word commonly used to express sorrow, grief and concern, and there’s certainly been a lot of that this year.

At his last Downing Street press briefing on 21 December, Boris Johnson used it for the umpteenth time. “As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, this virus, alas, can move all too swiftly from one nation to another …”

Five days earlier, with coronavirus spreading rapidly across the nation and new tougher restrictions in the offing, the prime minister admitted “the overall situation is, alas, worse and more challenging than we had hoped when we first set the rules”.

In late November, Johnson told the nation that the tiering system wasn’t really working. “I should warn you now that many more places will be in higher tiers than, alas, was previously the case,” he said. Two weeks before that, on 9 November, “alas”, he said, the death figures were rising fast.

And in his statement to the Commons at the beginning of the month, it was double portions. “When I look at what is happening now amongst some of our continental friends and see doctors who have tested positive being ordered, alas, to work on Covid wards … I can reach only one conclusion: I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people.” Getting the R number down was essential to avoid “more hospital admissions and, alas, more fatalities”.

These aren’t the only occasions the prime minister has used the word in recent weeks. And given the bleak news about the spread of the virus, they are unlikely to be the last.