Return to our muttons
According to the inestimable Yogi Berra, “it was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much”. A good conversation is a joy but often someone strays off the subject to the despair of the others. It is time to remind them to return to our muttons, the subject in hand. At first blush it is a strange phrase and one, frankly, that is rarely heard these days but it has a long pedigree.
The Roman epigrammatist, Martial, was a pithy and often scurrilous commentator on Roman society and mores. We owe almost as much to him as the Roman graffiti writers for our knowledge of Latin slang and obscenities. This side of the classical world which he and Aristophanes illuminated for schoolboys like me was almost worth the hard slog of learning Latin and Ancient Greek.
In Epigram 6.19 Martial is engaged in a legal case concerning three goats. He writes in despair at the rhetorical grandiloquence of his lawyer, Postumus, and begs him to get back to the matter in hand; “Iam dic, Postume, de tribus capellis”, translated as “it is time, Postumus, to say something about my goats”. You can feel his sense of frustration.
Martial was an influential role model in the French and Italian renaissance and it is tempting to think that he may have been instrumental in inspiring the anonymous writer of the popular farce, La Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin from around 1457, to put the following words into the mouth of a frustrated judge, anxious to get a litigant back to the matter in hand; “sus! Revenons ā ces moutons”. As the subject matter of the case was sheep, it is easy to explain why Martial’s goats were transformed.
Whether the anonymous farceur coined the phrase or used something that was already established in the common vernacular is unclear but, suffice it to say, the phrase crops up in Guillaume Coquillart’s Monologue of the bundle of straw from around 1480 and moving into the 16th century Rabelais used it on several occasions.
Interestingly, when the phrase crossed the channel to Blighty, it was used in its French format. John Chamberlain, a prolific correspondent, writing to Sir Dudley Carleton, a Secretary of State and diplomat, on February 22, 1617 used the phrase pour retourner ā nos moutons to get back to the matter in hand. The novelist, William Makepeace Thackery used the phrase in History of Pendennis, published in 1850; “His brougham – O ay, yes! – and that brings me back to my point – revenons ā nos moutons. Yes, begad! Revenons ā nos moutons”.
Some English writers, though, could not abide the prospect of tainting their delicately wrought prose with a dash of the French language and so faithfully translated the phrase into English. The novelist, Maria Edgeworth, was one such. In a letter dated November 5, 1820 she wrote, “But to come back to our muttons – the wind not being fair we did not sail to Dover but we are in hopes it will change before tomorrow”.
The phrase never seemed to gain much favour amongst native English-speaking writers, perhaps because it is somewhat quaint and it is not immediately obvious what it refers to or we prefer to stop someone beating about the bush. Still, it does crop up from time to time. In one of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn mysteries, Black As He’s Painted from 1974, we read, “But I digress, he said accurately. Shall we return to our muttons? Yes, Alleyn agreed with heartfelt relief. Yes. Let’s”.
I shall make it my business to use it from time to time. All I need is a conversationalist who digresses. How hard will that be to find?!