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Lord Geidt’s ‘odious’ remark

Lord Geidt’s ‘odious’ remark
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Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter 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 Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado: ‘Comparisons are odorous.’

Lord Geidt’s adjective seemed to me old-fashioned and classically inspired. Odious would have been fashionable in the Regency period. Leigh Hunt remembered from the great actor Kemble examples of ‘vicious pronunciation’: odious, he complained, became ojus. Kipling went one better in the Just So Stories by making hideous an adverb pronounced in like manner: as the crocodile pulled, the ‘Elephant’s Child’s nose grew longer and longer—and it hurt him hijjus!’

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

Hatred pops up in two or three Latin scraps lodged in the memories of the educated classes. ‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo,’ wrote Horace, ‘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, taken from the play Atreus by Accius. Then, less schoolboyish perhaps, since my husband was not familiar with it, is the beginning of an elegiac couplet by Catullus: ‘Odi et amo’: ‘I hate and I love’.

Particular kinds of hating have taken as their model odium theologicum. ‘Strigellius desired to die, that he might be freed ab implacabilibus odiis theologorum, “from the implacable strife of contending divines”,’ wrote the Puritan John Flavel in 1673. Since then odia have multiplied, a strong contender being the odium academicum, rivalled by the aestheticum, biologicum even musicum. But what can outdo the odium politicum?