Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bad Latin in Contemporary Writing

Here are four specimens of defective Latin appearing in contemporary writing.  The list may grow longer.  One of these I stumbled upon a couple years ago, or perhaps a bit longer, in a source I really was not expecting to find it.  The other three are from within the past few months. I plan to quote liberally so as to supply both a bit of context as well as something of the author's style.


Guy Davenport is not well known, although he should be.  He has done translations of archaic Greek poets and was a literature professor at the University of Kentucky for a few decades in the second half of the 20th century, finding time to write some very interesting stuff, both short fiction and essays, one of which was a in set of pieces compiled into a book called The Hunter Gracchus, published by Counterpoint in 1996.  I was stunned to find on page 156, in a short discussion under the title Two Notes on Wallace Stevens:
Beginning with the collection called Harmonium in 1923, Steven's books, handsomely published by Alfred Knopf, had an authority and finish, a presence.  In 1957 Samuel French Morse edited Steven's uncollected poems, and some prose, under the title Opus Posthumous.  In his 1989 edition Milton J. Bates adds to Morse's edition twenty-three poems, a short play, a rich selection from his notebooks, and nineteen prose pieces.  He keeps Morse's macaronic title, which should be Opus Posthumus, or in even better Latin, Opus Postumus.
It was surprising to me to find a Rhodes scholar, a MacArthur Foundation grantee, an academic with a degree in classics, ignoring the gender of opus, a neuter third declension noun.  The correct Latin would be Opus Postumum.  Perhaps even an exceptionally brainy and widely-read fellow can sometimes get so carried away by a little end rhyme that he forgets his basic noun-adjective agreement rule.


The next instance I came across was a few months ago, when. about the time of the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, I was reading Drew Gilpin Faust's pretty impressive recent book, This Republic of Suffering – Death and the American Civil War.  I came across this inscrutable bit of Latin (page 9):
How one died thus epitomized a life already led and predicted the quality of life everlasting.  The hors mori, the hour of death, had therefore to be witnessed, scrutinized, interpreted, narrated – not to mention carefully prepared for by any sinner who sought to be worthy of salvation.
How could anyone possibly imagine that hors mori  is the Latin for "the hour of death?" That would be hora mortis (as in the reasonably well known Ave Maria: "... ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.")  Hors is a French preposition.  Mori is the infinitive form of the verb "die" (morior, mori, mortuus) a deponent third conjugation i-stem.  The author has her doctorate in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and became the 28th president of Harvard University in 2007.  Note that her use of the Latin phrase here has none of the justification of her earlier (page 7) use of ars moriendi, in a discussion about the provenance of mid-nineteenth century thinking about the act of dying in terms of medieval and post-medieval works on the subject, in particular Jeremy Taylor's 1651 The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying, itself a translation of or derived from one or more earlier texts such as the Tractatus artis bene moriendi.


For several decades now my law office has been receiving a bi-monthly magazine called Liberty published by the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  It was coming when I started in 1975 as a partner with my father, and has continued to come steadily through the years even though I have never sent anything to cover the subscription price (currently a very modest $7.95).  The writing is generally pretty good and the perspectives are refreshingly out of the mainstream.  In a piece entitled "How Much Liberty? The New Evangelization and Religious Freedom" in the July/August 2013 edition somebody named Edwin Cook, who is described as having a Ph.D. in church-state studies from Baylor University, writes (p. 37):
In the modern context, with religious pluralism so predominantly manifest, one may be led to believe that religious diversity is a fool-proof safeguard against religious tyranny.  Such is true, unless religious groups no longer focus on their differences, and instead unite upon those points of doctrine that they hold in common, producing a "nondenominational state" (or, a re-Christianization of society)  If such a condition should prevail in the future, the real question will be: How much liberta (liberty) will exist for dissenting non-Christians while the church exercises its libertas ecclesiastica (liberties of the church)?
The problem here is a little subtler than Davenport's faux pas or Faust's gross howler.  This author leaves the -s off of the third declension feminine noun libertas, libertatis and glosses what remains as liberty, then adds an -s to that word in the phrase libertas ecclesiastica before glossing that as liberties – plural – of the church.  Since ecclesiastica is in its feminine nominative singular form, that phrase is a perfectly fine way to say in Latin ecclesiastical or religious liberty – singular – but a literal rendering of liberties of the church would be ecclesiae libertates, or possibly libertates ecclesiasticae (or better perhaps, or at least consistent with Vatican phrasing – from the full title of Declaration referred to as Dignitatis Humanae, which he cites elsewhere in his essay – libertates religiosae).  It looks like he thought the singular form of libertas was liberta, and that making it plural involved just adding an -s to the noun with no change necessary in the adjective.


It has been a couple years or so now since I discovered National Review Online, but recently I've had more time to read it.  It has become regular morning fare.  Kevin D. Williamson is described as a roving correspondent; he writes the Exchequer blog there.  He has recently authored a book, The End Is Near and It’s Going To Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, which I'm currently reading on my iPad.  Anyhow in a recent column (The New Segregation, November 11, 2013) he writes:
This is not the time to rehearse the case for school choice, important as that is, or for ending the cumbrous regulations and occupational licensing that prevent people with modest academic abilities from developing professions, important as that is. Homo novo sui generis is the rarest of specimens — most children need somebody to learn from, and it’s neither the free market nor the welfare state that is mainly responsible for depriving them of that. The first problem is their mothers and their fathers.
Sui generis, of course, is perfectly familiar. As Latin for "of his, her or its own kind" it is so common as to be found in most English dictionaries.  Grammatically it is the genitive singular of the adjective/noun combination suum genusHomo, hominis, m., (third declension) is a very basic word meaning "man, person, human being."  The problem is that the form novo, the dative or ablative singular neuter or masculine form of the first/second declension adjective meaning "new," does not agree with homo, which is masculine nominative singular.


Mr. Williamson gets a second entry, since I came across (last night) this sentence in his book (page 131 in the ebook edition):
Vouchers are a key reform not only because they allow students to attend private schools, but because they shift the locus of control in the allocation of education funds from the State acting in loco parentis to the consumer – or, in the case of children, to the consumers' parents acting in loco emptori.
 It just seems a darned shame to taint a neat echo in the in loco expressions from the perfectly legitimate English word "locus" ("place" – directly from the original Latin locus, loci, m., whence it derives orthographically unchanged) bounced off "allocation" (obviously another derivative) by writing emptor, emptoris, m., in the wrong case, i.e., the dative instead of the genitive, which is the case in which parentis is written.

I think that Davenport just slipped up.  I imagine that if his attention were directed to the point he would recognize his error instantly and smile about it.  I think the other three were trying to appear to be cleverer than they are, or at least to have a better command of the Latin language than they have. Maybe that's all it is, just some little foible on the part of these three, but it still baffles me why folks who seem to be well-informed, thoughtful, articulate writers, certainly above average, yield to the temptation to try to show off at something they don't really understand.

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