Them’s the breaks: Where does phrase Boris Johnson used in resignation speech come from?

Idiom that breaches grammatical rules sounds surprising from an Eton-educated former journalist

'Them's the breaks', says Boris Johnson as he resigns from office

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”.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in