Dot Wordsworth

Have we made a hash of rehash?

Have we made a hash of rehash?
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My husband put one foot forward at an angle to the other and grasped his left hand with his right. ‘Occidit miseros crambe repetita magistros,’ he declaimed.

He was quoting Juvenal, the seventh satire (‘rehashed cabbage is the death of wretched teachers’), though I 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 unprofitability of 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 of times – that crambe repetita was a widely familiar phrase. But even in 1893, the Oxford English Dictionary called crambe, the shorthand reference 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 a book written against him as ‘a Hash of ill-cooked Crambe’. Curiously, when Ellwood’s life was transcribed in 2003 onto the online Project Gutenberg site, Crambe came out as cram (the sort of food for force-feeding poultry), perhaps because of its unfamiliarity.

The other part of Ellwood’s phrase, hash, remains familiar. Mr Johnson’s policy initiative last week was called by our own Kate Andrews ‘a rehash of old ideas’. Byron was accused of rehashing one of his poetic heroes; it is now a bit of a dead metaphor, I suspect, not provoking images 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 hash over. That is not the same as frying up a pan of yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

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