Words & Stuff

LLL: Littera Scripta Manet

(4 June 2000)

Littera scripta manet: "the written letter abides," says my dictionary. I guess those ancient Romans didn't know about the World Wide Web.

Latin may not be still a living language, but it's certainly still in use. For one thing, an enormous number of words in modern languages have Latin roots; I'm told that learning Latin can make it much easier to learn French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages. For that matter, learning Latin roots can make it much easier to guess at the meanings of unfamiliar words in English. When I was a kid, whenever I asked "What does this word mean?" my parents would tell me "Go look it up!"; I'm sure that that had a bearing on my adult penchant for resorting to reference works at the drop of a hat, but it also (because our dictionary included etymologies, and my parents made a point of pointing them out) greatly enhanced my vocabulary. The roots of one unfamiliar word had a chance of making the next such word more comprehensible.

I gather that a century ago (at least in England), part of a standard upper-class education was extensive instruction in Latin and Greek. Essays published at the time (and until the 1920s or so) frequently include phrases or entire passages in Latin or Greek, left untranslated because it was assumed that readers could understand them, or perhaps even recognize them. A few modern books do this too; Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, for instance, is littered with Latin terms and phrases, as one might expect from an erudite novel set in a medieval monastery.

But that's not really what I mean when I say Latin is still in use. A great many Latin phrases are still in common everyday use in English -- from the Latin abbreviations I mentioned in a previous column (as well as others I neglected to mention, like Q.E.D. at the end of a mathematical proof -- Quod Erat Demonstrandum, "which was to be demonstrated"), to phrases like quid pro quo ("something for something") and sine qua non ("without which not") and status quo ("state in which").

And there's been a minor vogue in some circles for new and unfamiliar Latin phrases. Alexander Lenard translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin some years back -- Winnie Ille Pu is still in print and available at fine bookstores everywhere -- and more recently there've been other popular translations: Winnie Ille Pu Semper Ludet (Brian Staples' translation of The House at Pooh Corner), a book of fairy tales translated into Latin (Fairy Tales in Latin: Fabulae Mirabiles, a language instruction book by Victor Barocas, edited by Susan Schearer), and even Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus, a translation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Terence O. Tunberg and Jennifer M. Tunberg. Latin is becoming almost as popular as Klingon; perhaps some day, if Latin gets popular enough, someone will even translate the Bible into Latin.

Children's songs have already been translated into Latin:

Senex MacDonald habeat fundem
Et in hic fundem habeat bovum
Moo-moo hic, moo-moo ibi
Hic moo, ibi moo, ibi que moo-moo
Senex MacDonald habeat fundem

For other verses, plug in these words and sounds:

agneum: baa-baa
canem: woof-woof
felix: meow-meow
porcum: oink-oink
piscum: splish-splosh

Wish I knew who to attribute that to; I heard it anonymously at a science fiction convention nearly ten years ago.

There are also a variety of books providing Latin phrases (or Latin translations of English phrases) for use in everyday conversation:

And finally, there's a group of modern Americans who use a large number of rather obscure Latin abbreviations every day. You've probably encountered many of these abbreviations and had no idea what they meant or where they were from. No, I don't mean lawyers; the Latin phrases used in law are generally obviously Latin. I'm referring, rather, to what doctors write on prescriptions (though several of these items are not Latin):

each (quisque)
each day (quemque diem)
twice a day (bi in diem)
three times a day (tri in diem)
four times a day (quad in diem)
with (con)
without (sine)
after (post)
bedtime (hora somni)
by mouth (per ora)
suppository (per rectum)
due to (status post)
fluid intake and output
subcutaneous (also SC)
x hours (as in 8°, 8 hours)

So, for example, "ii tab po q8°" means "two tablets by mouth each eight hours." Use this handy guide to translate next time you get a prescription -- it may not be just the doctor's handwriting that makes the words incomprehensible.

Since my straight-faced jokes are often taken at face value, I suppose I should mention that I do know about the Bible in Latin.

Thanks to Bhadrika Love and Kendra Eshleman for the medical-terms list.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>