Ancient Words, Modern Notions

Hugh E.P. Platt, A Last Ramble in the Classics:

“The study of vocabularies raises some interesting questions in the history of morals and of manners. For many English words, as ‘steam-engine’, naturally there is no classical equivalent, because the ancients did not possess the thing. In some cases where no equivalent is found one may doubt whether it was the lack of the thing, or the mere want of abstract terms, that caused the deficiency. A reviewer of Byways in the Classics defied scholars to translate into Latin the word ‘Romanticism’. The thing was too undeveloped, I imagine, to require a word to express it. It is curious to observe how since the days of Johnson criticism has adopted a new vocabulary. ‘Psychological, inevitable, convincing, palpitates with actuality,’ are phrases with which the nineteenth century has enriched the world. So too are the following : ‘A pervading sense of elemental power’;  the race-consciousness made manifest’; ‘the architectonics of his art.’ In art criticism the favourite practice is to apply to music the language of painting, and to painting the language of music. However, the epithets employed by criticism, whether of art or of literature, must for the most part be metaphorical. Thus, describing a ‘period,’ Cicero uses the words tener, flexibilis, purtis, liquidus, and the like.

But to return to the question of Latin equivalents, let us try ‘love of nature.’ Here the Romans certainly had the thing. It has often been noticed that, though indifferent about the external appearance of their villas, they took the greatest care to secure fine prospects from the windows. But the abstract term for nature was wanting. Sometimes rus might serve. Or we get phrases like ‘illa caeli libertas locorumque amoenitas‘ (Quint, x. 3. 22). But usually the Roman tendency was to be concrete :

Flumina amem silvasque.

So when Lord Bowen translated

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife ;
Nature I loved, and after nature art,

he wrote :

Non contra indignos ingloria bella petebam ;
Semper erant silvae musaque noster amor.

We may contrast with ‘love of nature’ our phrase ‘the human interest.’ Here again the Romans had the thing, but not the word. In their literature the human interest is more dominant than in our own. It is less obscured by appeals to other sentiments. But when Quintilian wishes to say that the poem of Aratus is lacking in human interest, he has to explain :

‘Arati materia motu caret, ut in qua nulla varietas, nullus adfectus, nulla persona, nulla cuiusquam sit oratio,’ x. i. 55.

It is more curious that while we have to go to Latin for our word ‘benefactor,’ the word is not found in classical speech. The Greeks possessed εὐεργέτης, but the Romans used a periphrasis, such as optime de (me) meritus, or the like. ‘Jealousy’ too has no exact equivalent in Latin; and indeed the Italians of old, unlike their modern descendants, seem to have been singularly free from this feeling.

‘Bigotry’ was without a classical representative, for it was not a classical vice. It is melancholy to reflect that only a few years after Tiberius expressed the principle of religious toleration in the pithy saying deorum iniurias dis curae, the age of persecution set in, which has only ended (has it ended?) in our own day.

With the rise of bigotry, hypocrisy naturally increased also. There is, I think, no Latin word which carries the same associations as our ‘hypocrite.’ Simulator, dissimulator correspond rather to the English ‘dissembler.’ But by a hypocrite we generally mean not merely a dissembler, but a person who pretends to maintain an unusually high standard of morals or of religion. This vice is alleged by the rest of the world to be peculiarly English, I fear not without reason. Certainly the bank directors, the solicitors, the company promoters, who have distinguished themselves among us by their frauds, have almost without exception been persons who made a conspicuous profession of piety. When a famous French actress first appeared in England, the late Mr. Edward Pigott, then examiner of plays, warned her : ‘Remember that whenever you play in this country you will have before you five hundred Tartuffes.’ But the ancient world also had its hypocrites. Cicero more than once draws a lively picture of such a character in Piso, consul b. c. 58; and when Aeneas explains to Dido that his shabby treatment of her was due to high conscientious motives, one thinks for the moment that Aeneas must really have been an Englishman.

The presence or absence of a term appears sometimes to be merely a freak of language. The Romans had patruus and avunculus to distinguish an uncle on the father’s side and an uncle on the mother’s side; but for nephew classical Latin has only the cumbrous expressions fratris filius, sororis filius. On the other hand the Romans possessed the word gestatio to signify being borne either in a litter or in a carriage; whereas we only have ‘ride’ which is unsuited to a carriage, and ‘drive’ which properly pertains only to the driver. Here the change of manners has completely altered the meaning of a phrase. A hundred years ago if a friend had said to me,’ Mrs. Green carried me to  Brighthelmstone,’ I should have understood that he (or she) was conveyed to that pleasant watering-place by Mrs. Green in her carriage. But if a friend were to make the same remark now, my first thought would be a mental picture of Mrs. Green staggering under my friend on the Brighton road, and my next a conviction that my friend was Ananias himself, or, if a lady, Sapphira.”

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