Latin on “The Simpsons”

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Mayor and university

Over the past quarter-century, almost everything has been referenced on “The Simpsons,” and Latin is no exception.  However, no one has ever compiled a list of Latin references on the series, so here’s my catalog with commentary.

Probably the most famous Latin phrase in “The Simpsons” is the motto on Mayor Quimby’s seal, “Corruptus in extremis,” which appears in multiple episodes.  Quimby is infamously corruptselling the school’s milk contract to the Mafia, using taxpayer dollars to have his enemies killedso the intended meaning is obvious, “Corrupt in the extreme.”  The Latin phrase “in extremis” usually means “at the farthest reaches” or “as a last resort,” so this could arguably have the opposite meaning, that Quimby is corrupt only as a last resortthough no one other than Quimby’s press secretary is likely to spin it that way.

By contrast, pity poor Springfield University, which has no Latin motto at all.  The sign beside its gate reads, “Ask about our Latin motto contest,” as shown in the episode “Homer Goes to College” (1F02, 1993).  The university was founded in 1952, so if they still don’t have a motto, don’t hold your breath.  Some people have hypothesized this might be a dig at Cornell University, the only Ivy League school without a Latin motto, but that might be more convincing if Springfield University had been founded in 1865.

Gone Maggie Gone

It’s no surprise that Lisa Simpson, the bookish genius, knows Latin; this was demonstrated in “Gone, Maggie, Gone” (LABF04, 2009), a spoof of “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure.”  At the convent where Maggie is being held, a stained glass window features the Latin phrase “Quaerite Deum in corde et anima,” which is flawless Latin for “Seek God in heart and soul.”  (Kudos to scriptwriters Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham on that one.)  Lisa translates it and realizes she must play the song “Heart and Soul” on the organ to continue her quest.  (Actually, she translates it as “Seek God with heart and soul,” but that’s a nitpick.)  Later in the episode, Latin makes another appearance when the nuns sing the 13th-century Latin poem “O Fortuna,” as set to music by Carl Orff in his “Carmina Burana.”

The only student on a par with Lisa is Martin Prince, so it makes sense that he knows Latin too.  In “Treehouse of Horror VI” (3F04, 1995), Martin falls asleep in class after finishing a standardized test early, then he has what is, for him, a wonderful dream: he’s dressed as a wizard, triumphantly conjugating Latin verbs on a giant blackboard.  (Hey, we’ve all had that dream, right?)

Martin Prince

Martin: “I am the wondrous wizard of Latin! I am a dervish of declension and a conjurer of conjugation, with a million hit points and maximum charisma.”  [He reads from the blackboard.]  “Aha! Morire: to die.  Morit: he, she, or it dies.”
[Groundskeeper Willie morphs out of the blackboard; Martin gasps.]
Groundskeeper Willie: “Moris: You die!”
Martin: [runs off] “Aaagh!”
Groundskeeper Willie: “You’ve mastered a dead tongue, but can you handle a live one?” [Willie’s tongue shoots out of his mouth and squeezes Martin to death.]
Nelson: [in the classroom, seeing Martin die in real life] “Ha-ha!”

However, Martin isn’t as good a Latin scholar as Lisa because his dream ignores the fact that the Latin verb for “to die” (morior, mori, mortuus) is deponent and therefore exists only in the passive voice, despite having an active meaning.  All three forms in the episode are therefore incorrect.  Hypothetically, if it weren’t deponent, the verb would have the forms “moris” (“you die”) and “morit” (“he/she/it dies”), but the active infinitive would be “morere” (because it’s third conjugation), not “morire” (which would be fourth conjugation).  To the writers’ credit, most of the other Latin words on the blackboard are valid, including three subjunctive forms of the verb “to give” (“demus,” “daremus,” and “dederim“); which of the other words are valid is left as an exercise for the reader.

Shelbyville bus

There’s no evidence that Springfield Elementary teaches Latin, so presumably Lisa and Martin learned it on their own.  By contrast, there’s a Latin connection for their school’s archrival, Shelbyville Elementary.  In “The PTA Disbands” (2F19, 1995), the Shelbyville Elementary bus that arrives at Diz-Nee Historical Park bears the motto “Veritas et scientia.”  This is accurate Latin for “Truth and knowledge.”  Many writers for “The Simpsons” attended Harvard University, whose motto is “Veritas,” but that’s probably coincidental because dozens of schools use “Veritas” in their mottoes.  The episode’s scriptwriter, Jennifer Crittenden, attended Wesleyan University, which has no motto, though she also attended Miami Palmetto High School, whose motto is “Vis per scientiam” (“Strength through knowledge”), so that might explain the second half of the motto on Shelbyville Elementary’s bus.  More likely, however, the motto just reflects a standard academic sentiment.

Surprisingly, we know Homer Simpson took Latin in school.  In “The Front” (9F16, 1993), in order to earn his high school diploma, Homer retakes a science class he once failed.  As he explains to Marge:
Homer:  “I never passed Remedial Science 1A.”
Marge:  “And you’re a nuclear technician?”
Homer:  “Marge!  Ix-nay on the uclear-nay echnician-tay.”
Marge:  “What did you say?”
Homer:  “I dunno.  I flunked Latin, too.”

So Homer at one point took a Latin class, but not only did he fail, he learned so little that he’s hazy on the difference between Latin and Pig Latin.  Because he doesn’t need to retake Latin to earn his diploma, presumably it was an electivethough it’s odd to think that Homer would take a Latin class if it weren’t mandatory.  Incidentally, several episodes feature Pig Latin.  A long dialogue in Pig Latin appears in “Marge vs. Everyone” (FABF03, 2004), when Bart and Lisa try to conceal their conversation from Marge, only to have her remind them, in Pig Latin, that she used to be a child too.

Semper fi

Though his Latin is weak, two episodes contain conflicting references to Homer saying  “Semper fidelis,” the U.S. Marine Corps motto, which is Latin for “Always faithful.”  In “The Old Man and the Key” (DABF09, 2002), Homer correctly says the shortened version “Semper fi” when saluting “the good men who just lost their lives” as he and Bart play the hybrid board game Scrabbleship.  However, in “He Loves To Fly and He D’ohs” (JABF20, 2007), Homer mistakenly says “Semper fudge” after obtaining a favor from a pilot by pretending to be a fellow Marine, and he’s unable to provide the correct phrase when the pilot catches his error.  The intervening five years of Duff drinking must have dislodged that Latin phrase from his brain: quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.  (As a side note, although Homer never served in the Marine Corps, he did serve in the Army (“Two Dozen and One Greyhounds,” 2F18, 1995, and “G.I. (Annoyed Grunt),” HABF21, 2006) and the Navy Reserve (“Simpson Tide,” 3G04, 1998).)

I can’t find any indication that Marge has studied Latin, but given her impressive ability to learn Portuguese when the Simpsons travel to Brazil for the World Cup (“You Don’t Have to Live Like a Referee,” SABF11, 2014), she might have a knack for learning it, especially with the benefit of knowing a Romance language.  Of course, one could say the same about Homer after he masters Spanish while waiting in line at the Kwik-E-Mart in “Million Dollar Maybe” (MABF03, 2010).

Bart

Next we come to Bart, the Simpson who seems least likely to know Latin.  In “Bart on the Road” (3F17, 1996), Bart uses some Dog Latin to make fun of Lisa.  Bart pretends to have been selected for the National Grammar Rodeo in Canada, but it’s really a cover for his planned road trip to Knoxville:
Marge: “The National Grammar Rodeo?  I wish I were going.  Oh, wait, wait: I wish I was going.  Is that right, Bart?”
Bart: “I dunno.”
Lisa: “It’s not fair.  I’m the best student in school, how come I never heard about this competition?”
Bart: “Maybe because you are, as we say in Latin, a ‘dorkus malorkus.'”
Lisa: “That’s not Latin.  Mom, Bart’s faking it.”
Marge: “Lisa, you’ve had your glory.  Now it’s Bart’s turn.”

A decade later, however, Bart learns some real Latin.  In “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Guest Star” (GABF09, 2005), Bart enrolls in Catholic school after his expulsion from Springfield Elementary.  Homer eventually converts to Catholicism as well, enticed partly by a pancake dinner, but before his conversion, he’s confused by Bart’s Latin prayer:
Marge: “Bart, would you like to say grace?”
Bart: “Yes’m.  In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
Homer: “Bart, what the hell are you saying?”
Lisa: “That’s Latin, Dad.  The language of Plutarch.”
Homer: “Mickey Mouse’s dog?”
Lisa: “No, Plutarch.  He chronicled the lives of the Roman emperors.”

Bart recites the Trinitarian formula, meaning “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  In a surprising reversal of roles, Bart’s Latin is completely correct, while Lisa’s follow-up comment is incorrect.  Although Plutarch lived during the early part of the Roman Empire and later acquired Roman citizenship, he was Greek, having been born and raised near Delphi, and his works were written exclusively in Greek, including the “Parallel Lives” to which Lisa refers.

Bart and Homer

Let’s close our discussion of the core Simpson family with a pair of mock-Latin taxonomic names.  In a nod to the old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, the episode “Homer Alone” (8F14, 1992) shows Bart being chased by Homer, and their scientific names are given as “Bratus Don’thaveacowus” and “Homo Neanderthalus” respectively.  (The real taxonomic term for Neanderthals is Homo neanderthalensis.)

Moving to the series at large, we see that only one episode has a Latin-inspired title: “E Pluribus Wiggum” (KABF03, 2008), a reference to the U.S. slogan “E pluribus unum” meaning “One out of many.”  When Springfield holds the first presidential primary election in the United States, candidates flock to the town, but “out of many” candidates, eight-year-old Ralph Wiggum emerges as the sole candidate for both Republicans and Democrats.  (Despite its ending, the name Wiggum isn’t derived from Latin, especially because the letter “W” didn’t exist in classical Latin.  Instead, Wiggum was the maiden name of the mother of Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons.”)

In “22 Short Films About Springfield” (3F18, 1996), dubious physician Nick Riviera appeases Abe Simpson’s hypochondria by telling Abe he has “bonus eruptus,” defining it as “a terrible disorder where the skeleton tries to leap out the mouth and escape the body.”  This is a mock-Latin parody of medical terms.  The true Latin word for “bone” is “os, ossis” (third declension neuter), so the phrase would actually be “os eruptum,” but because all the bones are trying to leap out, the plural “ossa erupta” would make more sense than the singular.  “Bonus” is the Latin word for “good,” but that’s clearly not the meaning Dr. Nick had in mind.

Another mock-Latin medical term is “Crayola oblongata,” the surgical operation in which Moe Szyslak re-inserts a crayon through Homer’s nose into his brain, thus lowering Homer’s IQ from its unbearable Algernon-like peak of 105.  This appeared in “HOMЯ” (BABF22, 2001), and the phrase was a play on the crayon brand Crayola and “medulla oblongata,” a part of the brain whose name ultimately derives from the Latin words “medulla” (“pith” or “marrow”) and “oblongata” (“elongated”).

Because C. Montgomery Burns is ancient, you might expect him to speak Latin as a way of demonstrating his age, but instead the writers have him rely on archaic-sounding coinages, some of which are Latinesque.  In “Homer the Smithers” (3F14, 1996), Burns admits he’ll need to rely on a car’s manual to distinguish the “velocitator” from the “deceleratrix,” nonce Latinate coinages for the gas pedal and brake pedal.  “Deceleratrix” is the feminine form, while the masculine form would be the more standard “decelerator.”  In “The Seven-Beer Snitch” (GABF08, 2005), Burns says he needs more convicts in the “dungeonarium,” adding a Latin suffix to an English word, though even the English “dungeon” ultimately derives, via the French “donjon,” from the Latin “dominus” meaning “lord” or “master.”

Coining nouns through Latin suffixes isn’t confined to Burns, and the series is especially fond of the Latinate ending “-ium” (or “-eum”):

  • In “Lisa’s Wedding” (2F15, 1995), Chief Wiggum runs a Renaissance fair tent called “Friar Wiggum’s Fantastical Beastarium.”  (The authentic Medieval Latin word for a bestiary is slightly different, “bestiarium.”)  Friar Wiggum’s prize exhibit is the fearsome Esquilax, a horse with the head of a rabbit and the body of a rabbit, whose made-up name likely alludes to Latin “equus” meaning “horse.”
  • In “This Little Wiggy” (5F13, 1998), the town is home to the Springfield Knowledgeum, a museum “where science is explained with brightly-colored balls.”  This is a mock-Latin portmanteau of “knowledge” and “museum,” spoofing the names of real-world institutions such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Washington DC’s Newseum.
  • On Springfield Elementary’s periodic table, provided by bologna-maker Oscar Mayer, element 42 is “bolognium,” whose symbol is Bo and whose atomic weight is “delicious” or “snacktacular.”  (In real life, element 42 is molybdenum, Mo.)  Strangely, almost all the other elements are correct as of the episode’s airdate, though molybdenum is moved to where actinium should be, a fictitious element with symbol We (presumably “wienerium”) appears in place of lanthanum, Uhe is an apparent typo for Une as the former symbol for meitnerium, and the rightmost seven columns are missing.  This appears in “Lisa Gets an ‘A'” (AABF03, 1998).

Periodic table

Not surprisingly, many of the show’s portmanteau coinages involve Latin roots, though their meanings are implied more by English words than by Latin.  Two examples used by Homer are “sacrilicious” (when Homer eats a waffle to which he had been praying, in “Homer Loves Flanders,” 1F14, 1994) and “ovulicious” (when Homer eats a strawberry-flavored fertility pill that he had secretly been feeding to Manjula, in “Eight Misbehavin’,” BABF03, 1999).  Another is “scientician,” possibly a play on “scientist” alone, but more likely a portmanteau of “scientist” and “dietician” because the scientist appears in a dietary context, namely the pro-carnivore filmstrip “Meat and You: Partners in Freedom” (“Lisa the Vegetarian,” 3F03, 1995).  Not quite a portmanteau, but still in the spirit of altering English words with Latin roots, is “superliminal” advertising, a Navy recruiting method distinguished from “subliminal” and “liminal” (“New Kids on the Blecch,” CABF12, 2001).  Finally, in a parody of the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel 17, after the giant Nelson Muntz (Goliath II) is killed, Eddie the cop arrests Bart (King David) for “megacide” (“Simpsons Bible Stories,” AABF14, 1999); although the Greek “mega-” doesn’t really belong with the Latin “-cide” (from “caedere,” meaning “to kill”), “megacide” is much funnier than “giganticide,” a purely Latin-derived word found in many English dictionaries.

The most famous coinage on “The Simpsons” is “cromulent,” which has become a perfectly cromulent word meaning “authentic” or “legitimate,” ever since its initial appearance in “Lisa the Iconoclast” (3F13, 1996).  I’m sure writer David X. Cohen coined it with no thought for its possible etymology, but given that adjectives ending in “-lent” are usually derived from Latin, I propose an etymology from the Latin word “croma,” a first declension noun defined by the 1982 Oxford Latin Dictionary as a “surveying instrument for taking bearings to fix lines of orientation.” The noun’s diminutive form would notionally be “cromula.” I know no other Latin word with the root “crom-,” and it’s easy to imagine that a small instrument whose purpose is to measure straight, accurate lines could yield an adjective meaning “legitimate” or “authentic.”

As a case of omission, the series sidesteps an implied Latin reference in “They Saved Lisa’s Brain” (AABF18, 1999).  When Lisa is invited to her first Mensa meeting, she correctly remarks that Mensa is “a constellation visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.”  Although the most intelligent people in Springfield are there, no one mentions that Mensa is also the Latin word for “table,” which is the real-world origin of the group’s name, as well as the origin of the constellation’s name.

Cletus and crab

We wrap up the series with its least erudite character: Cletus Spuckler.  It’s surprising that, with the exception of Julius Hibbert, Cletus is the recurring character with the most overtly Latinate name.  The English-language name Cletus originated as a shorter form of the Latin name Anacletus, best known as the name of the third Catholic Pope.  In turn, Anacletus is a Latinized form of the Greek name Ανακλητος (Anakletos), quite a classical etymology for a slack-jawed yokel.

Even outside the series itself, there’s a connection between “The Simpsons” and Latin. A pale yellow sand crab, discovered in East Asia, has been given the Latin taxonomic name Albunea groeningi in honor of series creator Matt Groening.  The crab’s species name is the genitive form of Groening’s surname, treated as if it were the second declension masculine noun “Groeningus.”  It was named in 2002 by Dr. Christopher B. Boyko, a crustacean expert in the biology department at Dowling College in New York.

As this review shows, “The Simpsons” plays with Latin in almost every way possible:  accurate and erroneous, religious and scientific, mock Latin and Pig Latin, mottoes and coinages, a snacktacular element and a killer dream.  If you’ve spotted any other Latin references in “The Simpsons,” feel free to leave them in the comments.

Hollywood Enochian

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Goat with text

Hollywood scriptwriters often use Latin (or pseudo-Latin) to evoke the arcane, epic, or mystical. Recently, however, I’ve noticed the emergence of a far more obscure language in that niche: Enochian.

As background, Enochian was the so-called “language of the angels” as recorded by the English mystics John Dee and Edward Kelley in the 1580s, with Kelley as the seer and Dee as the scribe. It was also said to be the language of Adam and Eve before the Fall, a pre-Babel ancestor of Hebrew. It cannot be overemphasized that no mainstream linguist, historian, or cleric considers this to be a naturally occurring language, much less one used by angels or Adam and Eve, though some present-day occultists take it in earnest. However, even as a constructed language, it’s an attractive choice for Hollywood because it has centuries of history, it conjures an esoteric aura, and it’s far less likely than Latin to be understood by audiences, thus letting scriptwriters take liberties without being caught.

…Until now. I’ve had a linguistic interest in Enochian for years, ever since I obtained a copy of Donald Laycock’s “The Complete Enochian Dictionary” (Askin, 1978) in a rare book shop, so I can’t help but applaud scriptwriters who use Enochian correctly and gently reprove those who don’t.

Nothing has done more to popularize Enochian than “Supernatural,” an excellent long-running TV series about Sam and Dean Winchester, two human brothers who battle monsters and avert the occasional apocalypse. From the fourth season onward, the series added angels as characters:  brooding warrior angels unlike Hollywood’s usual saccharine depiction, most notably the deadpan scene-stealer Castiel. Around the same time, the series started including some Enochian, and to their tremendous credit, the scriptwriters generally use authentic words. Most famously, in a 2010 episode, Castiel explained that the words to a fake exorcism were actually an Enochian insult meaning “You breed with the mouth of a goat,” after which he commented that “It’s funnier in Enochian,” the latter becoming a catchphrase among “Supernatural” fans. (That particular insult would be “Virq a butmon levithmong.”)

In the past few months, two new TV series have featured Enochian in their pilot episodes. “Constantine” is a series about John Constantine, a blue-collar English warlock who travels the United States fighting supernatural evils. In the pilot, he drew a vast sigil on the floor with what he described as Enochian runes. However, as shown in the still image below, the runes are actually early medieval Germanic runes, not in any way similar to the Enochian alphabet. From the two long segments visible in full, the runes appear to be Anglo-Saxon Futhorc, with the apparent addition of one loosely-drawn rune from Elder Futhark (representing “J”) and one from either Marcomannic or Younger Futhark (representing “K”). They transliterate as “SIONOUAMKRO” and “ISUMMONJOUD,” which aren’t Enochian words or phrases, even if respaced and read in either direction. (The latter appears to be English, but I can’t make sense of the former.)

Constantine and alphabet

The other new series is “The Librarians,” about a team dealing with magical relics in their struggle against the evil Serpent Brotherhood; it’s a spinoff from a Noah Wyle movie franchise. “The Librarians” featured Enochian in its two-hour premiere, when mathematical savant Cassandra solved a sliding-tile puzzle, explaining that it used “High Enochian, a mathematical language based on Greek and Hebrew.” The camera shot was too brief for me to see if the puzzle used real Enochian letters: TNT doesn’t make episodes available online, and the biggest flaw of “The Librarians” is that it glosses over every puzzle-solving exercise, which of course is the opposite of what makes “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure” so appealing. However, Cassandra’s explanation doesn’t inspire confidence because there’s no such thing as “High” Enochian, Enochian isn’t derived from Greek or Hebrew (although Hebrew is notionally derived from it), and it’s not mathematical unless you count the trivial fact that Dee and Kelley recorded their letters and words in square grids. Indeed, Donald Laycock has aptly noted that numbers are the least developed and most dubious part of Enochian: of the few numbers given by Kelley and Dee, “daox” means 5678, “eran” means 6332, “darg” means 6739, and “taxs” means 7336, defying all attempts at explanation or interpolation.

One obstacle to using Enochian, as opposed to Latin, is that many common words are unknown because they don’t appear in the texts recorded by Dee and Kelley.  Even the general word for “angel” is unknown (as opposed to categories of angels and the names of hundreds of individual angels), as is the name of the language itself, which wasn’t dubbed Enochian until well after Dee’s time.  Authentic translations therefore require some ingenuity.  For example, the best I can do for “It’s funnier in Enochian” would be “Moz i drilpi a bial de madriax,” literally meaning “Its joy is greater in the voice of heaven.”

Of course, Hollywood needn’t be factually accurate to be entertaining, but a TV series that does its research proves that it cares about details and respects its audience, two potential indicators of a ratings hit or a cult favorite.  “Constantine” and “The Librarians” might look to the success of “Supernatural” and take heed.

Beware of false plurals

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octopodes

We’ve all had that moment of indecision when pluralizing a Latin-derived noun: should I use the traditional Latin plural and risk seeming snobbish, or should I use the anglicized plural and risk seeming uncultured? However, there’s an even bigger pitfall, which this blog post might help you avoid.

Before we address that, some purists believe the Latin plural is always correct, so the English plural is always wrong: that extreme view rejects linguistic change, and it implies Latin-to-English imports like “senator” and “tractor” should use the Latin plurals senatores and tractores. At the other extreme, some nativists believe the English plural is always preferable, while the Latin plural is an irrelevant relic, but this is wrong too: if you referred to the *”alumnuses” and *”alumnas” at your high school reunion, the school would probably revoke your diploma. The moderate course of action is to consider whether the English or Latin plural is more frequently used, consider your audience, and consider the linguistic spin you wish to impart.

The number one thing to avoid, however, is using an incorrect Latin plural.  No matter how Latinate they may sound, and no matter how correct (or hypercorrect) you’re trying to be, incorrect plurals are foolish.  Consider these words that might seem like second declension masculine nouns, with singular -us changing to plural -i, but aren’t.

1. Caucus – It’s easy to imagine Roman senators adjourning into smaller groups called *”cauci.”  However, that’s wrong because “caucus” isn’t Latin-derived at all: it’s of Native American (Algonquin) origin, so stick with “caucuses.”

2. Ignoramus – This is from Latin, but the plural *”ignorami” is wrong because “ignoramus” comes from a verb, not a noun. It means “we are ignorant” or “we do not know” and entered English as a jury verdict between innocent and guilty, likely gaining its current English meaning through the title of a 1615 legal satire. To avoid linguistic guilt, say “ignoramuses” instead.

3. Virus – We’re getting closer because this is a Latin noun—but it’s neuter, and plurals of Latin neuter nouns always end in -a.  In Latin, the word virus was used only in the singular, but if we had to construct a plural, it would be vira.  The Romans didn’t discover the germ theory of disease, so the Latin word virus meant “poison” or any other harmful element.  *Viri is wrong as a plural because the -us would change to -i only if it were a masculine second declension noun; oddly enough, virus is the only neuter second declension noun in Latin. (Viri is a common Latin word as the plural of vir, meaning “man,” which is related to “virility” but not “virus.”) Given that classical Latin didn’t pluralize this word, and no English speaker says vira, the healthy choice is to stick with “viruses.”

4. Status – If you’re discussing the statuses of various projects, you might wonder if it should be *”stati”, but it shouldn’t.  “Status” is taken directly from Latin, and it’s a masculine noun, but it’s not second declension: it’s fourth declension. By fourth declension rules, the Latin plural of status is…status.  (The plural, unlike the singular, is pronounced with a long U, so sometimes it’s written statūs with a macron over the U.)  Latin fourth and fifth declension nouns in the nominative case have the same spelling in singular and plural.  Using “status” as a plural would confuse English readers, so you’re better off with “statuses.”

5. Octopus – The correct plural of “octopus” has become a classic gotcha, as many people are quick to say that “octopi” is wrong because “octopus” derives from Greek, not Latin, and therefore the authentic plural is octopodes.  That’s the right end result but not a complete explanation because octopus is also the Latin word for “octopus,” so we need to examine the chronology.  The Latin word octopus is a modern scientific coinage, first cited by Linnaeus in 1758, which is also the year in which it is considered to have entered English—so the English word really is derived from a (modern) Latin word. (In classical Latin, this creature was called a polypus, a Greek-derived term meaning “many-footed” rather than the more specific “eight-footed.”)  Admittedly, the modern Latin word derives from Greek, but so do many classical Latin words.  In light of all that, why isn’t *”octopi” the Latin plural?  Because when Linnaeus coined the modern Latin word, he retained the Greek stem by making it a third declension noun (octopus, octopodis), which therefore makes the nominative plural octopodes, a perfectly valid Latin plural. The classical Greek singular was ὀκτώπους (oktopous), and the classical Greek plural was ὀκτώποδες (oktopodes, plausibly transliterated as “octopodes”). Given the three choices found in most English dictionaries, I avoid “octopodes” (possibly confusing and possibly pretentious) and “octopi” (which has nothing to recommend it) in favor of the neutral “octopuses.”

6. Genus, corpus, opus – These nouns don’t change -us to -i because they’re neuter third declension, not masculine second declension. As mentioned above, all neuter nouns (regardless of declension) end in -a, but third declension nouns have an added twist because their stems often (but not always) add one extra syllable that appears everywhere except the nominative singular. So *”geni,” *”corpi,” and *”opi” are unquestionably wrong: the correct Latin plurals are genera, corpora, and opera.  Unlike some of the Latin plurals given above, “genera,” “corpora,” and “opera” are all commonly used in English.  You might sometimes hear people mention “corpuses” rather than “corpora,” but the other two Latin plurals are almost obligatory in English because biologists don’t usually say “genuses,” and *”opuses” sounds silly unless you’re referring to cartoon penguins.

These aren’t the only unusual -us nouns, but they illustrate the primary ways a -us noun can defy an -i plural.

Rescuing a library motto

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library motto image

Last month, a few news services picked up a story from Moorestown, New Jersey, where a new public library was unveiled, but its Latin inscription was found to be incorrect. The inscription, “Nos secundus coniecto omnia,” was intended to mean “We confirm all things twice.” It doesn’t really mean that, so reporters were quick to pounce, claiming that the inscription actually means “We second-guess all things.” However, the reporters were wrong too, suggesting that the reporters, like the library construction team, should have confirmed their translation twice. Let’s determine what this Latin text really means, and we’ll see if we can salvage it for our librarian friends.

(I’m setting aside the fact that even the English is dubious: If you confirm something, then you’re checking something you already know or believe. If you confirm something twice, then logically you already knew or believed it, then you checked it to be sure (thus confirming it once), then you checked it yet again (thus confirming it twice). That seems repetitive, but maybe that reflects an unusually cautious modus operandi: not only will their reference librarian confirm your facts, but a second reference librarian will reconfirm them.)

As with all Latin translations, let’s start with the verb. Coniecto is the first-person singular present indicative form of coniecto, coniectare, coniectavi, coniectatus, a verb with several possible meanings: “I bring together,” “I guess,” “I conclude,” “I prophesy.” It unquestionably doesn’t mean “we [second-] guess,” which would be coniectamus. Nos, meaning the plural “we,” can’t be the subject of the first-person singular verb whose subject is “I,” so nos must be a direct object here because it has the same form in nominative and accusative, hence it most likely translates as “us.” Secundus is a masculine nominative singular adjective that usually means “second,” though as I explained in a blog post two years ago, it can also mean “agreeable” or “favorable.” Finally, omnia does mean “all things,” being the neuter plural form of the adjective “all” or “every,” so both the town officials and the reporters got that one right. Like all neuters, omnia is identical in the nominative and accusative forms. The only singular nominative entity secundus could modify would be the subject, the implied “I” of coniecto, so “secundus coniecto” could mean “[Being] the second one, I guess” or “[Being] the agreeable one, I bring together” or any other combination of the above meanings. Nos must be the direct object, and because nos is plural and omnia has no other possible role available, omnia must modify nos (“us all”), leading to the surprising revelation that “we” are neuter.

Though we’ve resolved it syntactically, can we make it work semantically? Yes, we can. As a first attempt, we could interpret the motto as “[Being] agreeable, I bring us all together,” where “us” refers to neuter items such as inanimate objects. We can salvage this splendidly if we interpret the speaker as the library itself, benevolently announcing that it brings together books, ideas, people, or some other plausible referent. After all, what is a library if not a gathering place for people and their ideas? The catch is that the speaker must be masculine to agree with secundus, so rather than the word for “library” (bibliotheca, which is feminine), maybe the library is speaking of its role as a “place” (locus, which is masculine). The specific word for a “gathering place,” namely forum, is unfortunately neuter. As for the things brought together, we must reluctantly rule out books (libri, masculine), ideas (ideae, feminine), and people (obviously not neuter). One possibility is the word datum, a neuter noun that means “gift” or “thing which is given” in addition to being a play on the English word “datum” (plural “data”) for a piece of information: this could convey the pleasant double meaning that pieces of information are gifts given by the public library. Alternatively, we needn’t imagine a specific referent at all and can simply use the standard meaning of omnia to refer to all things, with the library modestly asserting that it brings together all things in the universe under one roof, which a library indeed does. The “us” makes sense because “all things [in the universe]” of course subsumes the library itself, as well as the people reading the motto. (Alternatively, someone might suggest an implied “to be” (“[Being] agreeable, I conclude [that] we [are] everything”) but in my opinion that’s using more supposition to achieve a less sensible payoff.) Granted, the sequence of the four Latin words is rather haphazard, but word order in Latin is almost completely fluid because, unlike English, the meaning of a sentence is tightly constrained by inflections, typically making word order irrelevant.

Officials in Moorestown have already announced that they plan to correct the inscription and replace it with a new inscription meaning “We encourage all.” (They haven’t announced the new Latin text yet, but I hope they’re consulting with local scholars before carving it in stone.) The change will cost $6,000 to $12,000, but the construction team has graciously agreed not to pass this added cost on to the taxpayers. However, they could have spared themselves the cost, and the town could have spared itself the embarrassment, if they had reinterpreted the existing motto as an apt, welcoming message: “I, an agreeable place, bring us all together.”

The two words I want to ban

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burned building

If you could ban a few words from the English language, which would they be? My Internet research shows that almost everyone who’s discussed the issue wants to ban words because they’re annoying, insensitive, or overused, but my own two candidates would be banned for far more pragmatic reasons. (As an aside, I’ve always thought that banning a word because it’s overused would be like closing a highway because lots of drivers are using it.)

Because the primary purpose of language is communication, I’d ban words that are always ambiguous and therefore make communication ineffective every time they’re used. Many words are ambiguous occasionally, and some ambiguity can be artful, as in the Keats line “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” However, words that are always ambiguous need to be stricken from pragmatic realms like safety and legislation, where misunderstandings can have serious consequences.

First on my chopping block would be “inflammable.” Given how often this word appears in safety labeling, it has no business carrying the opposite meanings of “yes, this will burn, so be very careful” and “no, this won’t burn, so feel free to light up a cigarette nearby.” Let’s ban this word and limit ourselves to “flammable” and “non-flammable.” A quick Internet search showed that both opposing meanings of “inflammable” are widely used in safety labeling, though apparently the industry isn’t overly concerned with language because the first Google search result was a material safety data sheet that misspelled the word “safety.”

Second on my banned list would be “biannual.” To me, it’s quite obvious this word should mean “every two years,” synonymous with “biennial.” After all, something that’s bicentennial occurs every 200 years, not every 50 years or 200 times a year; a biweekly meeting is held every two weeks, not twice a week; and a quadrennial event occurs every four years, not four times a year. By contrast, something that occurs twice a year is “semiannual,” just as something that occurs twice a week is “semiweekly.” Unfortunately, so many people use “biannual” for the opposite meaning of “twice a year” that it’s no longer safe to use this word at all without a 50-50 chance of being misunderstood, and many dictionaries present the two opposing meanings side by side with no trace of irony. I therefore propose that we abolish “biannual” and limit ourselves to the words “biennial” (every two years) and “semiannual” (twice a year), neither of which had an ambiguous meaning in any of the sources I checked.

In researching this blog post, I was surprised to discover that some people apparently use “bimonthly” to mean twice a month and “biweekly” to mean twice a week, the meanings for which I would use “semimonthly” and “semiweekly.” “Bimonthly” and “biweekly” don’t seem to have reached the 50-50 level of ambiguity that would mean they’ve lost all utility, but I fear they might eventually reach that point, and my axe will be ready.

For any readers who use the “bi-X” time words to mean “twice an X” instead of “once every two Xs,” I ask the following sincere questions:
1. Do you use the corresponding “semi-X” words?
2. If so, do you consider the “semi-X” words to be synonyms of the corresponding “bi-X” words, or, for example, would you use “semimonthly” to mean “once every two months”? (I’ve never observed the latter, but if someone uses “bimonthly” to mean “two [bi-] times per month,” then the same person would presumably use “semimonthly” to mean “half [semi-] a time per month,” which is equivalent to once every two months.)
3. What word do you use to mean “once every two Xs”? (For example, if you use “bimonthly” to mean “twice a month,” and either you don’t use the word “semimonthly” or you use “semimonthly” as a synonym of “bimonthly,” what adjective would you use to describe a periodical that’s published every two months?)

Aside from the scheduling of our own meetings and appointments, one of the main areas where these time words create ambiguity is legislation, so I searched federal statutes to see how these words were used and whether they were clarified by context. A search for “bimonthly” in the U.S. Code yielded seven results, six of which used it to mean “every two months,” either because context made it clear (16 USC 2625: “…sixty days in the case of an electric utility which uses a bimonthly billing system”), because frequencies were implicitly given in order (20 USC 1087dd: “payable quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly”), or because research elsewhere on the Internet verified that a “bimonthly bulletin” was published every two months, such as the Department of Energy’s bimonthly Better Buildings Bulletin. The seventh statute, dealing with U.S.-Russian space partnership, had a section entitled “Bimonthly Reporting on Russian Status,” but the body of the section specified that the reporting should actually be done “semiannually.” It therefore seems clear that “bimonthly” was probably meant as “once every two months” here as well, but equating “bimonthly” with “semiannual” implies that Congress thinks a year has four months, perhaps explaining why Congress gets so little done.  Of course, I shouldn’t knock Congress because this survey showed that they use “bimonthly” the same way I do, 100% of the time.

On the other hand, nearly every occurrence of “biannual” in U.S. federal laws was found to be ambiguous. A typical example was 33 USC 892c, which creates a Hydrographic Services Review Panel and dictates that they “shall meet on a biannual basis and [as needed],” but there’s no way to guess which meaning was intended. In the remaining statutes, sometimes it meant every two years; for example, 16 USC 1828 has a subsection entitled “Biennial updates” (unambiguously meaning every two years), which goes on to explain that the “Secretary shall provide biannual reports [on foreign fishing incursions].” On the other hand, 19 USC 2703a mandates a “biannual report” on the TAICNAR Haitian relief program, and Google searches elsewhere showed that these reports were produced every six months, with one report mentioning, “The ILO publishes its biannual reports in October and April of each year.” This legislative review confirmed my thesis that, whereas “bimonthly” is still generally understood to mean “every two months,” the word “biannual” has become too ambiguous to be usable.

Having dealt with the abominations of “inflammable” and “biannual,” I should acknowledge that there’s a large category of words called contronyms (or Janus words, or enantiodromes) that can have opposing meanings depending on context. For example, “cleave” could mean “cut” or “join.” However, it’s surprisingly difficult to construct real-world scenarios and sentences in which most contronyms would be ambiguous, while it’s nearly impossible to imagine a context in which “inflammable” or “biannual” isn’t ambiguous, unless the rest of the sentence makes the word nearly superfluous. (“Let’s produce biannual updates to this encyclopedia; we’ll release them in even-numbered years.”)

Are any other words too ambiguous to salvage? Or are there words you’d like to ban for an entirely different reason?

Beaver for breakfast?

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fiber beaver

My wife and I recently cajoled our kids into forsaking their old children’s breakfast cereal—essentially colorful sugar with a cartoon mascot—in favor of healthier fare. My son initially balked at grown-up cereals by commenting that the one I eat is “twigs and bark, like a beaver’s breakfast.” That made me chuckle for two reasons: not only was it marvelously apt, but he was unwittingly making a Latin pun.

If there’s one obsession among grown-up cereals, it’s fiber. The child-adult marketing dichotomy has become so stark that every cereal box bears either a cartoon character or a boast about fiber content, the latter being funny to Latinists who know that fiber is also Latin for “beaver.” Boxes touting “Now with 20% more fiber!” are less appealing to those of us who don’t want to eat beaver for breakfast.

There’s another Latin word for “beaver,” namely castor, which puts castor oil in a different light. As unappetizing as beaver oil would be, it’s a quirky fact that castoreum, a beaver extract, was consumed by the Romans for its purported medicinal value. If you’re reading this blog over breakfast, you might want to stop reading before I explain that castoreum is a yellowish-brown goo squeezed from sacs under a beaver’s tail, used by the Romans to treat everything from headaches to epilepsy.  It’s still used today in some musk-scented perfumes, though its present-day use as a food additive has been exaggerated.

Of course, fiber is far from the only word with radically different meanings in English and Latin. Just starting with F, some other examples include the following:

FAUX – “chasm; strait”
FAX – “flame of love; torch” (as in “to carry a torch for”)
FLAX – “sickle”
FOCAL – “scarf, neck wrap”
FUNGI – “I executed” as well as the expected “mushrooms”
FUR – “thief”

Elsewhere in the alphabet, one needn’t be bardus to think bardus means “bard,” but it actually means “stupid.” Coerceo means “I surround,” not “I coerce.” Crispus means “curly,” not “crispy,” and pondus means “weight” (related to “pound” and “ponderous”) rather than “pond.” Latex means “liquid,” so every time I see a can of “latex paint,” I’m thankful they’re not selling paint as a solid, gas, or plasma. Latin vocabulary is always good for a surprise or two, as well as the occasional chuckle in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Latin pair isograms

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My last blog post dealt with pair isograms: words, names, or phrases such that every letter they contain appears exactly twice. Examples in English include “sestet,” “intestines,” and “happenchance.” However, faithful readers of this blog have no doubt been wondering: what about pair isograms in Latin? (Or maybe they haven’t been wondering that. As my wife would be the first to attest, I’m not a mind reader.)

In Latin, as in English, most pair isograms fall into one of two trivial categories: palindromes (ecce meaning “behold,” esse meaning “to be,” suus meaning “his/her,” massam meaning “mass, burden [accusative]”) and repetitive words (quamquam meaning “nevertheless,” quotquot meaning “however many,” caecae meaning “blind [feminine plural],” testes meaning “witnesses”). These are all perfectly valid pair isograms, of course, just not very interesting.

However, I’ve also found some interesting ones. Here’s a list of some nontrivial pair isograms in Latin, each at least eight letters long:

ACCESSAE – “approached, reached” [feminine plural of participle of accedere]
APPARERE – “to appear”
APPELLARER – “I was being addressed” [passive imperfect subjunctive of appellare]
CONSENESCO – “I become old”
EMENDANDAM – “correcting” [feminine accusative of participle of emendare]
IMMORIOR – “I die [in]” (a deponent verb)
INSANIAS – “insanities” [accusative plural of insania]
INSTANTIAS – “presences; urgencies” [accusative plural of instantia]
MATERTERAM – “maternal aunt” [accusative of matertera]
PRORIPIO – “I snatch, I tear”
SENTENTIIS – “thoughts, feelings” [dative or ablative plural of sententia]
SORORIIS – “sisterly” [dative or ablative plural of sororius]

If anyone knows any other examples, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

Bands with a common bond

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pair isogram bands

What do the three bands pictured above have in common? (Spoiler to follow, so if you want to figure it out yourself, now’s the time.)

Words, names, or phrases that have no letter appearing more than once are known as isograms. Most short words are isograms, of course, but long ones are rare, two of the longest in English being “dermatoglyphics” and “uncopyrightable.”

Pair isograms are words, names, or phrases such that every letter they contain appears exactly twice. The word “sestet” is a good example because the letters E, S, and T each appear exactly twice. Some longer pair isograms include “appeases,” “reappear,” “arraigning,” “horseshoer,” “intestines,” “happenchance,” and “Transnistria,” all of which are well-known to wordplay enthusiasts. Trivial examples include palindromes with even numbers of letters (“noon,” “redder,” “Hannah”) and repetitive words (“bonbon,” “beriberi,” “Titicaca”); anything in these two categories is automatically a pair isogram unless, of course, a letter appears four or more times (“muumuu,” “agar-agar,” “Walla Walla”).

Of the three bands pictured above, the names “ABBA” and “Duran Duran” are trivial pair isograms because one is a four-letter palindrome and the other is repetitive. The third, however, is an outstanding example because it’s long and well-mixed: “Montgomery Gentry.” I recently made the discovery that this country duo’s name is a pair isogram, and Internet searches yield no indication that any wordplay buff has previously spotted this. It clearly wasn’t an intentional gimmick by the musicians themselves, who simply formed the band’s name from the members’ surnames. Of all the pair isograms I’ve noticed over the years (“Caucasus,” “legal age,” “Hatch Act,” “Inka Dinka Doo,” “stuck one’s neck out”), “Montgomery Gentry” is my favorite so far—and they play some pretty good songs too.

How not to summon the undead

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cabin header

 

I recently watched the movie “The Cabin in the Woods,” an enjoyable and creative reworking of a standard horror premise. I’m not much of a horror buff, but I made an exception because “The Cabin in the Woods” was produced and co-written by the talented Joss Whedon, and he didn’t disappoint. If you don’t want some mild spoilers (about a film you haven’t seen yet, or about Latin grammar you haven’t studied yet), this would be a good place to stop reading.

However, given Whedon’s usual close attention to language (Buffyspeak, authentic Mandarin in “Firefly,” etc.), I was surprised by the carelessness of the Latin incantation at the film’s critical turning point. TV and movies often make mistakes with Latin, so I don’t let it rile me; instead, I consider the errors teachable moments. However, this instance was unusually sloppy because no attempt was made to decline nouns or conjugate verbs: instead, every word was cited in the base form that appears first in an English-Latin dictionary (nominative singular for nouns, first person singular present indicative for verbs), and one adjective appeared in lieu of a verb. Et tu, Joss?

The incantation appears as follows:

Dolor supervivo caro. Dolor sublimus caro. Dolor ignio animus.

The character Holden translates this as “Pain outlives the flesh. Pain raises the flesh. Pain ignites the spirit.” A defensive viewer might try to advance an in-film reason for the lack of correct grammar, namely that the incantation appeared in the diary of Patience Buckner, the daughter of the “zombie redneck torture family.” However, that’s unconvincing for at least three reasons: the Latin was unhesitatingly translated into English by the character who was stereotyped as a scholar; it had the role of summoning the family from their graves, which a grammatically meaningless sequence of words or phonemes presumably wouldn’t; and the diary was planted in the basement by an overstaffed, abundantly resourced organization with the ability to create high-tech force fields, pheromone gas, and brain-altering hair dye.

So what would be the correct Latin? Each dolor is fine because it’s the subject and appears in the nominative. To agree with that subject, supervivo should be in the third person singular, supervivat, and caro should be in the accusative, hence carnem. The adjective sublimus must be replaced by the verb sublimat (third person singular of sublimare), and again caro needs to become the accusative carnem. Finally, ignio should be the third person singular ignit, and animus should become the accusative animum. As a side note, the verb ignire isn’t classical Latin because it was first attested in the Dark Ages and has had few citations even since then, but that’s not anachronistic because the diary entry was written in 1903. Combining these corrections yields the correct Latin:

Dolor supervivat carnem. Dolor sublimat carnem. Dolor ignit animum.

To avoid any such slip-ups in the future, I hereby offer Mr. Whedon my free consultation for any Latin appearing in his future work. In fact, as a public service, I’ll make the same offer to any Hollywood filmmaker, from Darren Aronofsky to Michael Bay…though a Michael Bay movie featuring Latin seems about as likely the Popemobile transforming into Optimus Prime.

Absit omen: anagrams of Latin phrases

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The handy Latin phrase absit omen means “let this not be an omen” or, more colloquially, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, but let’s hope I’m wrong.” (Consider it the verbal equivalent of knocking wood.) I’ve often thought it had the right mix of common letters to have a one-word anagram, but I’ve never found one. I therefore decided to turn to Wordmine and Wordsmith, two online engines that check for anagrams in multiple languages, though I limited the searches to English, French, and Spanish. I then fed the French and Spanish results into Wiktionary, whose entries often provide anagrams in the same language, to generate additional answers.

This process provided nine one-word anagrams across the three languages. Though the sample size was small, it also tended to suggest that Wordmine had the most complete lexicon for English, Wiktionary had the best options for French, and Wordsmith had the largest word list for Spanish.

– ambonites (Eng.), minerals containing cordiderites (Wordmine)
– motesanib (Eng.), an experimental cancer drug, sometimes capitalized (Wordmine)
– binotâmes (Fr.), “[we] hoed” (Wiktionary)
– botanisme (Fr.), “gardening” (Wiktionary)
– embâtions (Fr.), “acts of striking with a bat” (Wordsmith, Wiktionary)
– emboisant (Fr.), “cajoling” (Wordmine, Wiktionary)
– entombais (Fr.), “[I or you (sing.)] was entombing” (Wordmine, Wiktionary)
– entibamos (Sp.), “we prop” or “we place [something] against” (Wordsmith)
– sambenito (Sp.), “sanbenito” – the garment heretics were forced to wear during the Spanish Inquisition (Wordsmith)

I then searched for French and Spanish one-word anagrams of other Latin phrases, all of which are more familiar to English speakers than absit omen. As a puzzle for the reader, what familiar Latin phrase can be anagrammed to form each of these foreign words? Ignore accent marks; answers can be found in the comments.

1. dites (Fr., “[you (plural)] say”)
2. nuisît (Fr., “[he/she] was harmful,” imperfect subjunctive)
3. déprimé (Fr., “depressed”)
4. aportar (Sp., “to contribute” or “to invest”)
5. marnées (Fr., “covered with marline,” feminine plural)
6. alegreto (Sp., “allegretto, of somewhat fast tempo”)
7. batonnée (Fr., “amount of water pumped by each movement of a piston”)
8. lainerait (Fr., “[he/she] teases,” conditional present)
9. vivacités (Fr., “vivacities” or “brilliances”)
10. contiens (Fr., “[I/you] contain”)
11. pastueños (Sp., “tango-like dances” or “easily tricked, as a bull in bullfighting”)
12. appréciât (Fr., “[he/she] appreciates,” subjunctive imperfect)
13. abaluartas (Sp., “[you] fortify with bastions”)
14. estimasteis (Sp., “[you (plural)] estimated”)