Idiom that breaches grammatical rules sounds surprising from an Eton-educated former journalist
As he delivered his historic resignation speech in Downing Street, Boris Johnson had a message for the British public. “I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed,” he said.
“And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world.
“But them’s the breaks.”
A phrase that deliberately breaks grammatical rules – involving a singular verb with the plural pronoun – would not come naturally to an Eton- and Oxford-educated prime minister, a former journalist and accomplished writer.
But it was shorthand for suggesting he was unlucky – and that he accepted the way things had ended.
According to grammarist.com, the phrase comes from North America and the game of pool or billiards.
“When the balls are racked up in formation, one player ‘breaks’ or takes the first shot to try and send the balls around the table. The result of this break cannot be changed and the players must make do with what they are given,” Grammarist says.
Them’s the Breaks is also a crowdfunded Irish documentary film about a feminist movement battling gender inequality in the arts.
According to linguaholic.com, the phrase is informal so not to be used when talking to your boss.
It was this casual turn of phrase that annoyed some of the prime minister’s critics, who drew comparisons to the Queen attending Prince Philip’s funeral in dignified silence during the Covid pandemic, and listing the many problems Mr Johnson leaves the country to face.
Other ways of saying the same thing include “that’s (just) the way it goes”, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” and the French “c’est la vie” – that’s life.
Any of those phrases, suggesting absolute resignation to a situation, would have underplayed the dramas that faced Mr Johnson in office – the Covid pandemic, being found out over lockdown-breaking parties in No 10, war in Ukraine or the crippling cost of living crisis.
To his credit, he did not resort to them then. But when more than more than 50 of your MPs resign from government or party roles, demanding you stand down, you probably want a phrase a little stronger than simply “that’s life”.