, , , , , , ,

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.”