Mind your language

Have we made a hash of rehash?

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

My husband put one foot forward atan angle to the other and grasped his left hand with his right. ‘Occiditmiseros crambe repetita magistros,’ he declaimed.

He was quoting Juvenal,the seventh satire (‘rehashed cabbage is the death of wretched teachers’), thoughI don’t think he could manage much more from any Juvenal satire, except perhaps‘bread and circuses’, panem et circenses, from the tenth.

Boris Johnson was the object of his borrowed remark.Juvenal, speaking of the poor pay of literary men, came to the unprofitabilityof teaching rhetoric when pupils keep saying the same thing in the same words.I had thought, perhaps because I’d heard my husband say it – oh, a number oftimes – that crambe repetita was a widely familiar phrase. But even in1893, the Oxford English Dictionary called crambe, the shorthandreference to Juvenal’s line, ‘obsolete’.

In telling his own life story, Thomas (not Tobias, the MP)Ellwood, an early Quaker who read to the blind Milton in Latin, referred to abook written against him as ‘a Hash of ill-cooked Crambe’. Curiously, whenEllwood’s life was transcribed in 2003 onto the online Project Gutenberg site, Crambecame out as cram (the sort of food for force-feeding poultry), perhapsbecause of its unfamiliarity.

The other part of Ellwood’s phrase, hash, remainsfamiliar. Mr Johnson’s policy initiative last week was called by our own KateAndrews ‘a rehash of old ideas’. Byron was accused of rehashing one ofhis poetic heroes; it is now a bit of a dead metaphor, I suspect, not provokingimages of serving up microwaved leftovers.

A complication is that in America, rehash can mean‘discuss something in detail, often in recriminatory fashion’, as can the verb hashover. That is not the same as frying up a pan of yesterday’s mashedpotatoes.

Warmed up leftovers are still a useful weapon againstopponents. Coleridge deployed the metaphor in a lively way that might be lobbedat a prime minister today: ‘He had, I am persuaded, as honest a heart as wascompatible with his exceedingly profound ignorance of his ignorance, and therestless Bubble and Squeak of his Vanity and Discontent.’

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