Saturday, November 26, 2011

More Latin from 2011

A few months ago, I wrote a post about all the Latin phrases I had encountered in Thackeray's Henry Esmond. Ever since then, with my mind on the possibility of blogging about Latin, the number of phrases I've seen from the Romans' tongue has amazed me. I knew and understood some of the phrases, knew but didn't completely understand others, and understood but didn't recognize yet others. And of course, there were the phrases I had never seen and had to look up.

Williams's War in Heaven offered several phrases. Locum tenens was familiar to me: one holding (tenens) or taking the place (locum) of another, i.e. a placeholder. But I'm glad I looked it up, because I found out that the word "lieutenant" comes from this phrase. Anybody with more military understanding than I have is welcome to help me out from there. I think a lieutenant isn't in charge of a group of soldiers himself but acts as a subordinate mouthpiece for the captian. True? Another phrase in Williams that I recognized but didn't fully understand comes from Tertullian: certum quia impossibile. Tertullian's reference is to the doctrine of the resurrection: it is certain, he said, because it is impossible. In other words, widespread first-hand testimony to a miracle can be convincing where testimony to the mundane can easily be a lie; "I saw Jesus walking after being buried" is much more convincing than "Jesus slept here."

Stoker included several Latin phrases in Dracula, including the old Roman proverb festina lente: make haste slowly. In other words, the steady, careful strategy of the tortoise will beat the reckless abandon of the hare.  Essential to Kant as he sets out to prove the possibility of synthetic judgments is the idea of the tertium quid: a third something. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in most cases. A marriage, for instance, is something more than just the concatenation of the man and the woman: there's also a third something, a relationship and a unity. The pitches C and G played together produce a tertium quid: harmony. The tertium quid came up again in William James later in the year; I believe that his description of the tertium quid in mathematical propositions essentially agrees with Kant, but he expressed it in terms so much clearer than Kant's, I really can't be completely sure.

In Waugh's Men at Arms, I encountered Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris: Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Looking up a reference in Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall, I found Aquinas's tenet, De Deo scire non possumus quid sit, sed quod non sit: We cannot know of God what He is, but what He is not. (Recalling that sentence now reminds me of a phrase I read in Ephesians just this morning: that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge.)

Many common phrases peppered my reading from the year: imago dei, tabula rasa, prima facie, memento mori, vice versa, non sequitur, requiescat in pace, and others (or in Latin, et cetera). But I'll close with a phrase I read in Boswell that, as far as I could determine, Dr. Johnson came up with himself: Quid tentasse nocebit? What harm does it do to have tried?

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