Contrary to popular belief, Latin is far from being a dead language, in part because new words are continually being coined to adapt to changes in technology and society. The Vatican has taken the lead in standardizing new Latin terms for modern-day items, from lasers to helicopters to blue jeans. In this post I’ll use a few of the Vatican’s coinages to show the various interesting processes for forming these words. Warning: the discussion of pizza is not for the squeamish.
skyscraper – It’s easy to forget how evocative this word is: a building tall enough that its top seems to scrape the sky. The same image, and therefore the same phrasing, can be found in other languages: the French gratte-ciel and the Italian grattacielo literally mean “scrape-sky,” and the German Wolkenkratzer means “cloud scraper.” This phenomenon, in which each part of a compound is translated literally between languages, is known as a calque. The Vatican preserved the calque and the imagery by combining caelum (“sky,” source of the word “celestial”) and scalpere (“to scratch” or “to cut,” source of the word “scalpel”), then adding the neuter noun ending -um. Thus we receive the new Latin word for “skyscraper,” namely caeliscalpium.
shampoo – The word “shampoo” began as a verb meaning “to massage,” derived from a Hindi word for massaging or kneading, which in turn derived from Sanskrit; the word existed in English for a full century before it became a noun meaning soap for washing the hair. Rather than reconstruct this change in meaning or its origins in non-European languages, the Vatican took a direct functional approach. Shampoo washes the hair on the head, so it was logical to form a compound from the Latin words for “head” (caput, capitis) and “to wash” (lavare), followed by the neuter noun ending. This generated the end result capitilavium. I have no proof for why they chose “head” instead of “hair,” but because the usual Latin word for “hair” is capillum (related to “capillary”), they may have felt the back-to-back L’s in *capillilavium didn’t roll off the tongue, so of the two, capitilavium is certainly easier to say.
jeep – The English word “jeep” derives from the initials G.P., World War II-era military shorthand for a general-purpose vehicle, possibly influenced by Eugene the Jeep, a comic strip character created by Popeye creator Elzie Segar. It would be impractical to recapitulate this colorful etymology in a Latin term, so the logical route, as with “shampoo,” is to focus on the jeep’s function. A jeep is an automobile designed to operate on uneven terrain, but this is hard to encapsulate in a single compound word, so the Vatican chose a phrase: autocinetum locis iniquis aptum, literally “automobile suitable for uneven places.” This is somewhat unwieldy for everyday use, so although rocky mountains and jeeps aren’t part of daily life at the Vatican, a Latin speaker who owns a jeep might choose to condense this into an easily-pronounced acronym, ALLA, to be declined as a first-declension noun, just as the English “jeep” derived from an acronym. The acronym ALLA is purely notional on my part, however.
pizza – Pizza is essentially flattened bread with various toppings, though that description hardly does it justice. While you might expect panis for bread, classical Latin already had a word for a flat cake or flat bread: placenta, which derived from the Greek word for “flat” (πλακόεις) and didn’t adopt its biological meaning until the 16th century, when Italian anatomist Realdo Colombo coined the phrase placenta uterina (“uterine cake”). There are many varieties of flat cakes and flat breads, of course, so the Vatican selected the folding and pounding of the pizza dough as its distinguishing property: the transitive verb comprimere means both “to fold” and “to press,” so its fourth principal part, compressus (related to English “compress”), yields an apt modifier. With gender agreement, this becomes the Vatican’s phrase for pizza, placenta compressa. However, there’s more to the story: as if the first word weren’t unappetizing enough, I regret to note that the verb comprimere also means “to copulate with,” a verb that applies exclusively to male subjects. So the Vatican’s term for pizza could be construed as “a placenta with which a male has copulated.” Hold the anchovies.
jazz – This is truly a worst-case scenario. The etymology of “jazz” is somewhat fuzzy and not quite G-rated, so a calque won’t work. Jazz has no easily-defined function or single defining characteristic (improvisation? syncopation? blue notes?), so a functional definition won’t work. As a last resort, we can adopt it wholesale from English and slap a Latin ending onto it—but three-quarters of the letters in “jazz” don’t appear in native words in classical Latin. The letter J wasn’t introduced until long after the classical era, so the classical equivalent would be an I (as in the classical de iure instead of the modern de jure). Though not native to classical Latin words, the letter Z existed for purposes of importing words and place names from other languages, especially Greek (baptizare, zephyrus, Byzantium), so we can likewise use Z when importing the word “jazz.” However, the letter Z was never doubled in classical Greek or Latin, so we need to use a single Z instead. Next, we add the –ensis suffix, which generates adjectives from foreign places and other imported terms (as in Sinensis for “Chinese” or Canadensis for “Canadian”). Use the result to modify the authentic Latin word musica, and we finally have iazensis musica.
Now, as an exercise for the reader, try to deduce the meanings of the following Vatican coinages: ferrivia, navis sideralis, telescopium geminatum, brevissimae bracae, and fistula nicotiana. I’ll post the answers in the comments.