For the last couple of years a new word of greeting has been gaining currency on the small Sicilian island where my wife and I go to hide from the real world.
It is delivered loudly, boldly, with a big grin and accompanied by a mocking finger of fun, by a chap called Nino.
Nino is a big friendly giant of a man who, as it happens, looks pretty much like Roald Dahl’ s Big Friendly Giant – very tall, very skinny but jollier than the children’s book version, and with much smaller ears.
As far as I know, his greeting, which consists of bellowing “Johnson!” whenever we come into view, is reserved exclusively for the two of us. The greeting is accompanied by a gleeful chuckle and, occasionally, a slap on the back, as if to say: “You poor buggers!”
Nino runs a hotel in our sleepy village which sits high up a winding road above the island’s port. Most days we see him barreling up or down the mountain in his people carrier to pick up or drop off guests arriving or leaving on the ferries from the mainland. Or we see him whenever we pop into his place for a drink or a meal. And of course, whenever he bellows “Johnson!” and laughs heartily, so do those within earshot – hotel guests, staff, or passing locals.
We first met Nino about five years ago and got on famously with him from the start. “Ah! English! Brexit!” was his first greeting back then, shaking his head in wonder and his shoulders with mirth.
He liked the idea that we don’t actually live in the UK and that we always enjoy his infectious Brexit mickey-taking.
Nino always greeted us after that with variants of “Ah! English! Brexit! Hah!”, until the summer of 2019, when a change of Tory leader delivered up a new prime minister.
In July of that year, when we dropped in to see him, he leapt to his feet from his hotel office desk and lumbered towards us, arms outspread, smiling broadly and boomed “Johnson!”, followed by “Hah!” and a head-shake.
This was the norm that summer and on every visit since: “Johnson!”, every time he sees us, especially when he’s driving through the village in his people carrier packed with hotel guests. On those occasions he hoots his horn, slams on the brakes and leans his torso out of the window with a cry of “Johnson!” before crunching the gears and heading down the hill in a haze of diesel fumes.
We’ve always resisted yelling back the name of the Italian prime minister, especially when it was Conte, but on one occasion during Giuseppe’s premiership, Nino delivered a backhanded compliment to Boris by declaring (in Italian): “Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. We’ll take Johnson as long as you agree to take Conte, Salvini (then deputy prime minister) and (President) Matterella!”
But, I hear you cry, this is no evidence of the widespread adoption of “Johnson!” as a greeting/expletive contaminating an entire, if tiny, foreign community, as claimed at the start of this article.
Two replies to that: first, it would be more than enough evidence for Boris if he had written this piece.
And second, join me now down on the harbourside where, one morning last week, my sister-in-law went into a beauty shop for some nail polishy stuff. The shop assistant, realising she was English, said “Ah! Johnson! Brexit!”. He then went on to declare that the political situation in the UK was “mad”, and added, for complete clarity: “Boris, not good!”, before concluding a sale of a tiny bottle of what looked to me like plum yoghurt.
Let’s end in a nearby waterfront bar, last night, where Salvatore, Giovanni and Mimmo were in conversation with my wife and me. Or rather, in conversation with my wife, while I tried desperately to cling to the linguistic coat-tails of a hybrid Italian/Sicilian lingo that always gets away from me.
My wife, helpfully steering the conversation at my request in a bid to add texture to this article, asked Salvatore why he thinks “Johnson!” is so popular with Brits.
Salvatore, who is quite a character, said it is because Johnson is - come se dice in inglese? – quite a character. And also, he added, waving his hands around his head, because of his weird white hair.
Then we all shouted “Johnson!” as we clinked our glasses and fell about laughing, for all the wrong reasons…