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.