Mind your language

Lord Geidt’s ‘odious’ remark

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

25 June 2022

9:00 AM

Lord Geidt said in his resignationletter that he had been put in an odious position. He meant it was hateful,though it is impossible to forget the malapropism (avant la lettre) of Dogberryin Shakespeare’s Much Ado: ‘Comparisons are odorous.’

Lord Geidt’s adjectiveseemed to me old-fashioned and classically inspired. Odious would havebeen fashionable in the Regency period. Leigh Hunt remembered from the greatactor Kemble examples of ‘vicious pronunciation’: odious, he complained,became ojus. Kipling went one better in the Just So Stories bymaking hideous an adverb pronounced in like manner: as the crocodilepulled, the ‘Elephant’s Child’s nose grew longer and longer—and it hurt himhijjus!’

The condition of being hated, odium, has beenmarshalled by our learned friends to describe a libellous statement, bringingthe victim into ‘public scandal, odium or contempt’. Perhaps that legalisticcontext made the first Clerihew funnier. This verse form, invented by EdmundClerihew Bentley (1875-1956), began when he came out with the four lines: ‘SirHumphry Davy / Detested gravy. / He lived in the odium / Of having discoveredsodium.’ (It was apparently a later version that had ‘Abominated gravy’.)

Hatred pops up in two or three Latin scraps lodged in thememories of the educated classes. ‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo,’ wroteHorace, ‘I hate the profane mob and avoid them.’ Oderint, dum metuant,‘Let them hate so long as they fear’, was a favourite maxim of Caligula, takenfrom the play Atreus by Accius. Then, less schoolboyish perhaps, sincemy husband was not familiar with it, is the beginning of an elegiac couplet byCatullus: ‘Odi et amo’: ‘I hate and I love’.

Particular kinds of hating have taken as their model odiumtheologicum. ‘Strigellius desired to die, that he might be freed abimplacabilibus odiis theologorum, “from the implacable strife of contendingdivines”,’ wrote the Puritan John Flavel in 1673. Since then odia havemultiplied, a strong contender being the odium academicum, rivalled bythe aestheticum, biologicum even musicum. But what canoutdo the odium politicum?

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