Varro’s Poetic Introduction to Etymology

De Linga Latina v.5


“The passing of time degrades most things; it destroys many. The man you saw as a handsome boy you find distorted in old age. A third generation does not see the same man the first witnessed For this reason, the things which memory has stolen from our forebears, despite the work of Mucius and Brutus to track the fugitives down, cannot be brought back. If I am not able to track things down, I will not be slower because of it, but quicker in pursuit if possible. For the shadows in the forests where these things must be sought are not modest and there are no worn paths to the places we want to pursue—and, certainly, no few obstacles which may stand in the tracker’s way.”

Vetustas pauca non depravat, multa tollit. Quem puerum vidisti formosum, hunc vides deformem in senecta. Tertium seculum non videt eum hominem quem vidit primum. Quare illa quae iam maioribus nostris ademit oblivio, fugitiva secuta sedulitas Muci et Bruti retrahere nequit. Non, si non potuero indagare, eo ero tardior, sed velocior ideo, si quivero. Non mediocres enim tenebrae in silva ubi haec captanda neque eo quo pervenire volumus semitae tritae, neque non in tramitibus quaedam obiecta quae euntem retinere possent.

Marcus Terentius Varro was a Roman scholar who lived from the time of the Gracchi until after the Battle of Actium (116 BC to 27). He wrote 25 books on the Latin language, of which we have barely 20%.

 On the Latin Language, V 2-3

“…The first part, where we consider why and from where words develop, The Greeks call etymology; the second part is semantics. I will speak of these two categories in the following books together but more sparingly of the second.

These things are often rather obscure because every word that has been used does not still exist; the charge of time has made some forgotten. Moreover, every word that still exists, since it may be subject to misuse (applied incorrectly, for example) may not be wholly the same (since many words are altered by changes in spelling). And not every word has its origin from roots based in our own language. Many words indicate a different thing now from what they used to mean: for example, hostis (“enemy”). For, people who used this word in the past meant a foreigner who followed his own native laws; now when they use it they mean what used to be called perduellem (“enemy”).”

priorem illam partem, ubi cur et unde sint verba scrutantur, Graeci vocant etymologian, illam alteram peri semainomenon. De quibus duabus rebus in his libris promiscue dicam, sed exilius de posteriore.

Quae ideo sunt obscuriora, quod neque omnis impositio verborum exstat, quod vetustas quasdam delevit, nec quae exstat sine mendo omnis imposita, nec quae recte est imposita, cuncta manet (multa enim verba litteris commutatis sunt interpolata), neque omnis origo est nostrae linguae e vernaculis verbis, et multa verba aliud nunc ostendunt, aliud ante significabant, ut hostis: nam tum eo verbo dicebant peregrinum qui suis legibus uteretur, nunc dicunt eum quem tum dicebant perduellem.

One thought on “Varro’s Poetic Introduction to Etymology

  1. “Quare illa quae iam maioribus nostris ademit oblivio, fugitiva secuta sedulitas Muci et Bruti retrahere nequit.”

    Devastating! I have gradually begun to think that Varro is one of the truly great losses of antiquity. If only there were some way to trade a bit of Galen in…

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