Saturday, February 5, 2011

It's All Latin to Me

Latin is a very difficult language to learn.  I know; I worked on teaching myself for many years and can still make it through a few lines of the Aeneid only very slowly and with a dictionary.  And yet just a couple hundred years ago, university classes in Europe were still held in Latin.  In order to make this possible, all young people destined to go to university studied Latin in preparation for the experience.  By the time the teen-ager matriculated, supposing everything proceeded according to plan, he could read Virgil's epic and had parts of it memorized.  Scholarly authors such as Joseph Addison, who appears in Thackeray's Henry Esmond, wrote poems in Latin, poems read, enjoyed, and critiqued by Pope and Johnson and indeed anyone with a university education and interested in literature.  It's no wonder that casual conversation among such people was peppered with Latin phrases -- some from the works they had all studied and some made up on the spot for the occasion at hand.

Henry Esmond has a Cambridge education, goes to war along with Richard Steele, dines with Joseph Addison, and meets but dislikes Jonathan Swift, so of course his conversation and even his narrative includes many phrases from the classic tongue.  Today I offer a look at several of the ones I've come across so far.  I had to look up almost all the references; some of the translations I borrowed, and some are my own.

maxima debetur pueris reverentia: We owe the greatest respect to children.  (Juvenal)  The phrase refers to the care we ought to show in raising and teaching them, not to any obligation we have to listen to them or cater to their wishes.
O Dea certe: O, surely a goddess!  (Virgil, Aeneid)
vacuae sedes et inania arcana: empty seats and hollow mysteries.  According to Henry, this is what a shallow person sees when she looks into her heart.
indocilis pauperiem pati: One who cannot learn to endure poverty.  (Horace)
pudet haec opprobria dicere nobis: It is shameful that they speak these reproaches of us.  (Ovid)
abi in pace: Depart in peace.
saevo laeta negotio: happy with her savage work  (Horace, said of the goddess Fortune)
quondam: An adverb in Latin meaning formerly, the English language has adopted it as an adjective meaning former, as in "A quondam student of mine wrote to me recently."
Beati pacifici: Blessed are the peacemakers.  (Jesus, via Jerome)
Benedicti benedicentes: Blessed are those who bless.
virtute sua: by his own strength
Reficimus rates quassas: We refit our battered ships, i.e., we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.  (Horace)
matre pulchra filia pulchrior: The mother is beautiful, the daughter even more so.
imo pectore: from the bottom of my heart
mori pro patria: to die for one's country; from Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.  (Horace)
reddas incolumem precor: Deliver him unharmed, I pray.  (Horace)
Gades aditure mecum? Will you visit Gades with me?  (Horace)  I don't know where Gades is or why I should want to ask someone to go there with me.  But the quotation provides a classical way of asking, "Would you go even to the ends of the earth with me?"
non omnis moriar: I shall not wholly die.  (Horace)
bar sinister: Only the second half of this phrase from heraldry is Latin.  The first word is the familiar English word; the second word means left.  (Sorry, lefties, you've had an unjustly bad reputation ever since ancient times.)  On a coat of arms, a solid bar running from lower left to upper right indicates a bastard son.  I had no idea; I'll be paying closer attention to coats of arms now.
vana somnia: false dreams
desipere in loco: part of Dulce est desipere in loco (Horace): Sweet it is to play the fool in the right place.
remedium amoris: remedy for love (Ovid)
aliquo mero: with some wine.  Henry and Addison are in an inn dining, and when Addison asks him to describe a battle he was in, Henry dips his finger in the wine and starts tracing a map on the table.  When another guest arrives, Addison explains that Henry is drawing aliquo mero.  The o's at the ends of the words in this instance indicate the ablative case, expressing what English does often by means of the words with or by.  So if you find someone drawing on the table with his drink, you can say he is drawing aliquo mero, but if you want to put a classical twist on the offer of a drink, you can ask a friend if he would like aliquid merum.
si parva licet: part of Si parva licet componere magnis (Virgil): if we may compare small things with great
hac ibat Simois, hic est Sigeia tellus: Here flowed the Simois, Here is the Sigeian field.  (Ovid)  In looking over and explaining the map drawn with wine, Addison (or Henry, I forget which) tosses in these phrases from Ovid.  Shakespeare quotes the same Latin passage in The Taming of the Shrew in a scene apparently depicting a Latin lesson, suggesting that the passage formed a standard part of the Latin curriculum in Christian Europe.
aliquo proelia mixta mero: embroiled battles with some wine; a further development of the phrase spoken earlier
alma mater: Literally, nurturing mother; the phrase is used, of course, to refer to one's college.
magnum opus: great work, masterpiece
afflavit Deus, et dissipati sunt: God blew and they were scattered.  The English coined this phrase and used it to refer to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in a great storm.  A modern country making headlines for current events in Latin!  Imagine if Kennedy had told us to ask what we could do pro patria or if Neil Armstrong, when landing on the moon, had said, "Aquila consedit."
meminisse juvat: it is pleasing to have remembered
requiescat: may he rest.  The book uses only this one word, but it recalls the entire phrase requiescat in pace.  Curiously, both the original phrase and the common English translation, "Rest in peace," can be abbreviated on a small tombstone with the same three letters.
quidnunc: Literally "What now?" in Latin, the word is used in English for a busybody, one who goes around picking up gossip.
rus in urbe: countryside in the city, said of a park
Mutato nomine de te Fabula narratur: The name changed, this tale is told of thee.  (Horace)  Like Joe Friday, Horace changed the name when he told his story, but unlike Friday, he identified his subject as soon as he was finished.

There's your Latin lesson for the day.  Say "O certa Dea" to a beautiful woman.  Tell someone, "I love you imo pectore."  Say "Abi in pace" when someone leaves, and toss in a quidnunc and a quondam.  Before you know it, respect for Latin will rise again, and our country will be full of eloquent youth.  Ah, such vana somnia.  Yet dulce est desipere.

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