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Latin anagrams and their misuse

No sooner do we have a new Pope than misinformed conspiracy theories take root. It seems silly to waste time addressing the weak attempts to tie Pope Francis to “Peter the Roman,” an apocalyptic figure from the forgery known as the Prophecy of the Popes, and whose reign would allegedly witness the destruction of Rome; suffice it to say that, despite his Italian (not Roman) ancestry, Pope Francis hails from a place farther away from Rome than anyone else in the 2,000-year history of the papacy, and he’s obviously not named Peter. However, because I’m fond of Latin and word puzzles, I’ll address the anagram of his motto that’s been circulating lately.

All Catholic bishops have coats of arms, and those who are elevated to the papacy usually retain them, sometimes with minor changes. Pope Francis is no exception. His papal coat of arms appears above, and an excellent description of its meaning can be found at the Vatican Library’s website. Their analysis includes an explanation of his papal motto, Miserando atque eligendo, which derives from a homily by the Venerable Bede. (One minor caveat: In the extended quotation from the Venerable Bede, the Vatican Library website translates vidit as “sees,” when it should actually be “saw” because vidit is in the perfect tense.)

Some conspiracy theorists are now attempting to connect Pope Francis to Peter the Roman by anagramming the above motto as Ego, in qui Roma delenda est. Of course, Roma delenda est hearkens back to Cato the Elder’s well-known Carthago delenda est, or “Carthage must be destroyed.” These conspiracy theorists therefore claim that Pope Francis’s motto is foretelling his own role in the destruction of Rome through an anagram translated as “I, in whom Rome is to be destroyed.” They may get some points for effort, but grammatically it’s hogwash. For starters, in qui makes no sense in Latin, though it’s superficially a word-by-word translation of the English text; they presumably mean in quo, but more logically it would just be quo as an ablative of means or agency, without the in at all, and neither variant would form an anagram. More importantly, any sufficiently long string of common letters can form numerous anagrams. Sadly, there aren’t any Latin anagram generators available online, but it took me only a few minutes with pen and paper to form a positive, and grammatically correct, anagram of Pope Francis’s motto: Aries, qui ne domat legendo. This means “the ram, who indeed conquers by means of a legend,” and in that spirit I have no doubt that Pope Francis, with his kindness and humility, will eventually win over the hearts of those who try to malign him using old forgeries and, worse yet, sloppy Latin grammar.

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