Sunday, 24 February 2013

Quo Vadis, Latin?

Pope Benedict chose to announce his resignation in Latin.  I can’t imagine that this was dictated by precedent, nor that it was his own mischievous choice (though he does seem to have a twinkle in his eye occasionally), nor even that he was instructed to do so by God, because by permitting him to resign God has effectively informed him that He no longer has confidence in his (Benedict’s) ability to be His (God’s) representative on Earth …  It does tell you a lot of what you need to know about the RC Church, though.

[Sorry, this is partly prompted by my starting a long overdue reread of Joseph Heller’s ‘God Knows’, the first person story of the Biblical King David, a guaranteed laugh a page.  Sample quote: “Abraham dumbfounds me still for having performed with apparent ease a feat of incredible difficulty.  He circumcised himself.  Now this is not an easy thing to do – try it sometime and see.”]

Sorry again, I digress.  I was reminded about Latin this morning when I found myself saying ‘tabula rasa’, without thinking.  It was in connection with the opportunities presented by an uncultivated garden, and was met with an appropriately blank stare.  I thought about it and realised that I often say “de facto”, or even “ipso facto” in conversation, again without wondering for one moment whether my collocutor knows what I mean.  And we all use more daily Latin than we imagine – think QED, RIP.

I have little Latin, because of how I was taught at school.  It was a subject at Southbourne Prep School, before I was eleven, and I loved it.  It was like a kind of mathematics – pure logically constructed formulae without the noise of meaning.  (It took me decades to understand that I could have been a mathematician.)  But when I went on to the grammar school, that enthusiasm was methodically destroyed.  It became about memorisation rather than comprehension, vocabulary rather than structure.  I was accused, by an idiotic teacher (Mr Green, I think he was) of being little better than an idiot because I’d failed to hand in a translation of some banal, irrelevant  passage from the Gallic Wars or somewhere.  I was expected to get O level, because I was expected to become a lawyer (for which it was then a prerequisite, or ‘sine qua non’).  I failed the exam, twice, the second time deliberately.  Oh well, another career path closed off.  Factum est.

Just to come back to my first paragraph, a couple of tags gleaned from a quick trawl through pages 1801-1806 of my Chambers Dictionary: “crambe repetita”, and “cucullis non facit monachum”.  Interpretations available on request, subject to admission of surrender.


  1. Crambe repetita kills wretched schoolmasters, as I remember. I had to look up 'cucullis' in my trusty Latin dictionary, rebound in 1892 and handed on by my grandfather to my father, my sister and then me: I wasn't familiar with the phrase but I think it means 'the cowl doesn't make the monk. Rather nice - not written by an ancient Roman, I presume?

  2. For me, "God Knows" is one of the funniest books of the last century. Now, that would be a good one to read on a long flight...
    I never had the Latin for the judgin' on account of it wasn't taught at my school.(I expect, because none of the teachers had it, either!)

  3. I shamelessly googled those (not having done any latin at all). I like 'warmed-over cabbage' (stale repetitions).

  4. I've never read it! Hopelessly ashamed of myself, I'll buy it forthwith.

  5. So is everyone recommending 'God Knows' as a good read? I have just finished 'Catch 22' and loathed it. Does this make me a philistine?

  6. I enjoyed it, Liz, but I read it several decades ago. I hope God Knows is good, I've just ordered it.

  7. Now look - you've made me order God Knows AND 2 others by Heller.

    I do have Catch 22 in the "to re-read" pile beside the bed, but then I'm always asleep before I've read anything.

  8. I suspect Catch-22 doesn't work over the age of about 25 (not being funny, Liz, but ...)
    I read his next three novels and hated them, but had forgotten God Knows until it jumped out of the bookshelf the other day. I suspect it works better the older you are ...

  9. 'Catch-22' is one of those allegedly classic books that just didn't live up to expectations, but maybe I just read it 20 years too late.

    It appears that 'God Knows' is not currently available for Kindle. I shall have to see if the library has it next time I am in that neck of the woods.

    For her birthday a few years ago, my Mum asked for a book about Latin translations and also one specifically about Latin poetry. She loved, loved, loved them and has read both about 3 times.

  10. I thought 'Catch 22' was a book of its time. I hated it when I was a stuffy romantic teenager but last year I found it illuminating and sad.
    Now searching charity shops for 'God Knows'.