“Make a hash”

There are many different categories, of NOOBs, I have found. Some are the province of commerce (opening hours, bespoke, stockists), and some of journos (bits, cheeky). Others have flourished in the U.S. in a Darwinian process of adaptation: they filled a need, and survived (go missing, run-up). One of the more subtle groupings consists words or expressions that have historically been used by both Yanks and Brits but alternate as to which side of the Atlantic favors them. Two examples are trousers and amongst, and another is an expression I read today in a Philadelphia Inquirer review of an album by Kurt Elling: his “reworking of [Jerry] Leiber’s ‘On Broadway’ makes a pretentious hash of it.”

To make a hash (that is, mess) of something is, indeed, in moderately wide circulation among the American chattering classes, as in this from a Commentary magazine blog post: “When the Germans take full account of how rapidly they are sinking into the same debt morass that afflicts their profligate neighbors in and out of the euro, they too may well decide that their elites (and their Constitutional Court) have made a hash of it.”

And this, from the Texas Tribune, on the state’s former Governor Rick Perry’s presidential run: “He took the family name out into the world and made a hash of it.”

The expression was coined in the British Isles, probably not long before 1833, when Cardinal Newman wrote in a letter: “Froude writes up to me we have made a hash of it.” But it was picked up in the U.S. soon after that and reached a plateau of popularity here from the 1890s through the 1920s. I know that from this Google Ngram chart showing the frequency of the expression made a hash of it from 1850-2008. Use then sharply dropped, bottomed out roughly 1950-1990, and has increased ever since–predictable, since 1990-present is the golden age of NOOBs.

British use, meanwhile, plateaued roughly 1920-1990. At that point, just as Americans were warming to the phrase, it lost its luster for the British. Their use of it has dropped by about 50 percent, to the point where … wait for it … they currently use it with just about the same frequency as the Americans do.

This is a pattern that has come up many times in these posts and suggests intriguing patterns of linguistic identity among the two peoples.  If anyone out there is looking for a topic for a dissertation, this might be a keeper.

6 responses to ““Make a hash”

  1. It still sounds British to me, probably because I hear it at times on British TV, but never in real life.

  2. I’ve always associated this phrase with the type of cooking e.g. corned beef hash, now also considerably less popular in the UK than it was in my childhood 20 years ago too…

  3. I wonder if the phrase has anything to do with the hash symbol “#” – I know that Americans often call it the pound sign, which is ambiguous due to “£”, but with the rise of Twitter etc. the name “hash” is being used more in the US; e.g. hash tags.

  4. I suspect that making a “hash” of it is the polite terminology and has generally been superseded by the higher impact “c@*! up” and “f@*! up”… In business speak I would probably use “I made a mess of it”, but to friends it would be one of the two ruder versions, depending on the scale of the hash that has been made.

  5. “hash” I believe simply means to mix something up, i.e. as in corned beef hash which is a mish-mash (do you have that phrase over there?) of ingredients. So, like the phrase “make a dogs dinner of it” it means to mix things up but in a random, messy way. In other words, a synonym for a messy, disordered state. A mess.

  6. Where do “hash brownies” come into this, please? I have always assumed that they were an American import into the British breakfast scene.

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