Sunday, June 30, 2013

Magister Imperatorque Latine

As I read this month through The Truelove and The Wine-Dark Sea, volumes 15 and 16 Patrick O’Brian’s amazing series of novels on the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I kept some notes on Latin phrases that appeared. When I looked them up later, what struck me most was the variety of sources drawn upon. The scope tells us something about Stephen and, of course, his creator.

Several of the phrases come, as expected, from classical literature, revealing a classical education of reading the ancients in their original languages. Non sum qualis eram, “I am not as I was,” comes from Horace’s Odes, IV.1. Two quotations come from Petronius. Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas, from a short poem, means, “Filthy and short is the pleasure in copulation.” From the Satyricon we get two lines:

    Sic erimus cuncti postquam nos auferet Orcus
    ergo vivamus dum licet esse, bene.

    Thus will we all be after Orcus carries us away
    Therefore let us – as long as it is allowed! – live well.

I don’t remember what scene of death Stephen was looking on when he said these lines, but they make most sense in the presence of human bones. Hamlet’s gravedigger might have expressed such a sentiment. (Hamlet had a different reaction.)

And from Livy’s History comes Vae victis! In 390 B.C., the Gauls took the city of Rome and made the citizens give up a certain amount of gold. When the Romans noticed that the weights used to measure the gold were doctored, the Gauls’ commander, Brennus, shouted, “Vae victis! – Woe to the conquered!” There’s a tinge of sarcasm in the reply. In our time, an era in which Mad magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” has become a guide to everyday discourse, we might say, “Boo hoo!” or “Go write your Senator,” or “Here’s an uncia. Go call someone who cares.”

A couple of the phrases come, as far as I can make out, from ancient literature but may have reached Stephen through later usages. Lignum vitae is the tree of life from Genesis 2 in Jerome’s Vulgate translation. But in modern times, the phrase identifies the guaiacum tree, which has particularly potent medicinal qualities. And Homo hominis lupus, “Man is a wolf to man,” appears originally in Plautus, but was quoted by later philosophers, notably Hobbes, whom surely Stephen has read. Taedium vitae, which means ennui or perhaps even clinical depression, has no classical source I could locate. But it does appear several times in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, a book doubtless quite familiar to Stephen.

Three phrases appear to be Stephen’s (thus O’Brian’s) original concoctions. Tertium in tabulatum mali, “into the third layer of evil,” recalls the circles of Dante’s Inferno, but that work was written in Florentine Italian. (The Divine Comedy, in fact, played a large part in causing Florentine to become the common language of most of the peninsula.) When asked for the Latin for “pudding,” Stephen offers sebi confectio discolor, “a multicolor composition of animal fat” (or more literally, “of animal fat a composition multicolored”). Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that educated officers in the Royal Navy commonly said such phrases as nodi decem.  But they may not have used a number as high as decem. After all, few ships of the time can match Surprise’s ten knots.

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