Suffering for a Lack of the Latin Language

Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 7.72

I used to tell you that Cestius, because he was Greek, suffered because of a lack of Latin words though he had an abundance of ideas. Thus, whenever he dared to describe something more broadly, he often stalled especially when he attempted to imitate some great genius.

This is the issue in this controversy. For, in his story, when he was telling about how his brother was given to him, he was pleased by this lonely and sad description: “night was laid out, and everything, judges, was singing under silent stars.” Julius Montanus, who was a companion of Tiberius and an exceptional poet, was claiming that he wanted to imitate Vergil’s line: “it was night and all the tired animals over the earth, the races of birds and beasts, were held by a deep sleep.”

Soleo dicere vobis Cestium Latinorum verborum inopia hominem Graecum laborasse, sensibus abundasse; itaque, quotiens latius aliquid describere ausus est, totiens substitit, utique cum se ad imitationem magni alicuius ingeni derexerat, sicut in hac controversia fecit. Nam in narratione, cum fratrem traditum sibi describeret, placuit sibi in hac explicatione una et infelici: nox erat concubia, et omnia, iudices, canentia sideribus muta erant. Montanus Iulius, qui comes fuit , egregius poeta, aiebat illum imitari voluisse Vergili descriptionem:

nox erat et terras animalia fessa per omnis,alituum pecudumque genus, sopor altus habebat

Cats doing cat things: sleep, play with mice, and take an unhealthy interest in caged birds from a medieval bestiary

Oxford University: Bodleian Library

Rain and Four-Horse Chariots: Some Metaphors for Language

Varro, On The Latin Language 5.11-12

“Pythagoras of Samos claims that the basic elements of all things are paired—finite and infinite; good and bad; alive and dead, day and night. For this reason, then, two basic elements are motion and set-position; and both split into four parts: what is still or is moved is a body; where it is moved is a place; while it is moved, is a time; what is the character of the movement, an action. The four-part split will be more obvious like this: the body is something like a runner; the stadium is where he runs; the hour is his time; and the running is the action.

For this reason, then, all things can be divided into four parts and these are eternal—since there is never time unless there is motion—even an interruption of motion needs time; nor is there motion without place and body, since the former is the thing that moves and the latter is where it moves; nor is there a lack of action where the body moves. Therefore, location, body, time and action are the four-horse chariot of etymological foundations.”

Pythagoras Samius ait omnium rerum initia esse bina ut finitum et infinitum, bonum et malum, vitam et mortem, diem et noctem. Quare item duo status et motus, utrumque quadripertitum: quod stat aut agitatur, corpus, ubi agitatur, locus, dum agitatur, tempus, quod est in agitatu, actio. Quadripertitio magis sic apparebit: corpus est ut cursor, locus stadium qua currit, tempus hora qua currit, actio cursio.

Quare fit, ut ideo fere omnia sint quadripertita et ea aeterna, quod neque unquam tempus, quin fuerit motus: eius enim intervallum tempus; neque motus, ubi non locus et corpus, quod alterum est quod movetur, alterum ubi; neque ubi is agitatus, non actio ibi. Igitur initiorum quadrigae locus et corpus, tempus et action.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 1.192-198

“One must consider too that without a fixed annual amount of rain
the land cannot produce its gladdening fruit
nor is it the nature of animals bereft of their customary food
to be able to increase their race and safeguard life;
In this way you ought to understand more readily that many bodies
are shared among many things, just as we see letters shared among words,
than that anything could ever exist without elemental beginnings.”

Huc accedit uti sine certis imbribus anni
laetificos nequeat fetus submittere tellus
nec porro secreta cibo natura animantum
propagare genus possit vitamque tueri; 195
ut potius multis communia corpora rebus
multa putes esse, ut verbis elementa videmus,
quam sine principiis ullam rem existere posse.


Image result for Medieval Manuscript abecedario

Skatokhasm: Another Word You Know You Need

How does one say “shithole” in Ancient Greek? As with other such esoteric considerations, this takes us into the depths of metaphor and meaning. Is a “shithole” a place whence shit emerges or one in which shit properly settles to age? To be more pointed, when we say “shithole”, do we mean the rectum (so is it a synonym for “asshole”) or do we mean a receptacle too primitive and unformed to be graced with the designation ‘toilet’?

I think when the leader of what was once the free world uses the term , he probably means the second meaning–that the countries designated so are “primitive”, bereft of proper sanitation, and, as such, both filled with excrement (in his excitable mind) and a worthy place for excrement to stay. Thanks to the magic of the conceptual metaphor, of course, the “shithole” can simultaneously indicate both origin and receptacle. One reason it is terribly racist is that the people who move from one to the other or inhabit them are, by extension, excrement.

Because I process trauma and horror through ancient Greek and lexicography, I need to ‘own’ this word by putting it in Greek. I think the stronger force of this metaphor is the location of discarded shit not the organ of excretion. Ancient Greek does not have a clear parallel (and believe me, gentle reader, I looked). I would love to hear some other suggestions. I put the call on Twitter.

The best suggestion, I think, is σκατοχάσμα (skatokhasma, see below). I like it because it has clear parallels (e.g. skatophage). Also, it sounds like “shit-gasm” which is what I think happens every time a certain chief executive speaks. Weaknesses: khasma is not very productive in ancient Greek compounds and is also rather ‘epic’ in scope. In English, “hole” is dimunitive a small. Shitholes are thus additionally awful because of their insignificance.

Honorable Mentions: τὸ σκατώρυγμον (skatorugmon). this has the sense of something hastily and poorly made by people. Also, κοπροβάραθρον is, as one correspondent declared, totally “metal” and, really epic. (Also, coprophilia is something the captain of our ship might cop to). The Lexicographer Zonaras treats all three of these nouns as synonyms (“Barathron: A ditch. A depth. The maw of the earth.” Βάραθρον. ὄρυγμα· βάθος· χάσμα γῆς). For me, barathron is mythical; orugmon is man-made, and khasma is more generic and ‘natural’. I prefer it, in sum, because of its huuugeness. It is really big. And the speaker mentioned above doesn’t do anything small.

Some Instructive Compounds

κοπρόνους: “manure-minded”
κοπράγωγεω: “to collect crap”
κόπρειος: “full of crap”
κοπρολογεῖν: “to gather crap”
κοπροφαγεῖν: “to eat crap”
κοπροστόμος: “foul-mouthed”
σκατοφάγος: “shit-eater”
κόπρανα: “excrements”
κοπραγωγός: “shit-bearer”
κοπρία: “dung-heap”
κοπρίζω: “to make dung”
κοπρικός: “full of it”
κοπροθέσιον: “a place where dung is put”. ‘Shit-bucket”
κοπροδοχεῖον: “cess pool”
κοπροποιός: “dung-making”
σκατοφάγος: “shit eater”
σκαταιβάτης: “shit-walker”
σκωραμὶς: “shit pot”; cf. Ar.Lys. 371: σκωραμὶς κωμῳδική: “comedic shitpot”

Image result for medieval manuscript toilet

From Beekes:


Ktesippos Beats his Father (and Conditional Madness)

Plato, Euthydemos 298e-299

Dionysodorus said, “Indeed, if you answer me immediately, you will agree with these things. Tell me, do you have a dog?

Ktesippos said “yes, a real scoundrel”

“And does he have puppies?”

“Yes, several just like him.”

“Therefore, your dog is a father.”

“Yup. I even saw him mounting the mother myself.”

“What about this: Isn’t the dog yours?”


“So, since he is a father who is yours then the dog is your father and you are a puppies’ brother?”

And then, Dionysodorus quickly interjected before Ktesippos could speak at all: “And tell me one more thing: do you beat your dog?

Ktesippos laughed then said, “Yes, by the gods, because I can’t beat you!”

“Therefore, you beat your own father”, he said.

“It would be whole lot more just if I would beat your father, since he thought it right to have sons like this!”

Αὐτίκα δέ γε, ἦ δ᾿ ὃς ὁ Διονυσόδωρος, ἄν μοι ἀποκρίνῃ, ὦ Κτήσιππε, ὁμολογήσεις ταῦτα. εἰπὲ γάρ μοι, ἔστι σοι κύων;

Καὶ μάλα πονηρός, ἔφη ὁ Κτήσιππος.

Ἔστιν οὖν αὐτῷ κυνίδια;

Καὶ μάλ᾿, ἔφη, ἕτερα τοιαῦτα.

Οὐκοῦν πατήρ ἐστιν αὐτῶν ὁ κύων;

Ἔγωγέ τοι εἶδον, ἔφη, αὐτὸν ὀχεύοντα τὴν κύνα.

 Τί οὖν; οὐ σός ἐστιν ὁ κύων;

Πάνυ γ᾿, ἔφη.

Οὐκοῦν πατὴρ ὢν σός ἐστιν, ὥστε σὸς πατὴρ γίγνεται ὁ κύων καὶ σὺ κυναρίων ἀδελφός;

Καὶ αὖθις ταχὺ ὑπολαβὼν ὁ Διονυσόδωρος, ἵνα μὴ πρότερόν τι εἴποι ὁ Κτήσιππος, Καὶ ἔτι γέ μοι μικρόν, ἔφη, ἀπόκριναι· τύπτεις τὸν κύνα

τοῦτον; καὶ ὁ Κτήσιππος γελάσας, Νὴ τοὺς θεούς, ἔφη· οὐ γὰρ δύναμαι σέ. Οὐκοῦν τὸν σαυτοῦ πατέρα, ἔφη, τύπτεις. Πολὺ μέντοι, ἔφη, δικαιότερον τὸν ὑμέτερον πατέρα τύπτοιμι, ὅ τι μαθὼν σοφοὺς υἱεῖς οὕτως ἔφυσεν.

Image result for Ancient Greek dog

About seven years ago, soon after the birth  of our first child, I put most of Ancient Greek grammar on powerpoint slides in order to (1) tighten up and improve my Greek courses (I made narrated presentations that I shared with students); (2) create a portfolio of Greek teaching materials that I would use for the foreseeable future; and (3) studiously avoid not writing a book by doing very important work. The sleeplessness of the first few months of my daughter’s life coupled with a special type of cabin-fever (it was 100+ degrees for over 60 days straight) might have warped my judgment a bit. Inspired by Plato’s Euthydemos I wrote the following examples for Greek conditional statements:

Present Simple Conditionals

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν διδάσκει, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἐθέλει

If Socrates is teaching your brother, then you brother is wanting/willing to kill the dog

Present General Conditionals

ἐὰν Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν διδάσκῃ, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἐθέλει

If Socrates teaches your brother, then your brother wants to kill the dog.

Present Contrafactual

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἐδιδάσκε, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἠθέλε

If Socrates were teaching your brother, then your brother would want to kill the do

Past Simple 

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν δεδίδαχεν, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἠθέληκεν

If Socrates did teach your brother, then your brother wanted to kill the dog

Past General

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν διδάσκοι, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἠθέλε

If Socrates taught your brother, then your brother wanted to kill the dog

Past Contrafactual

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἐδίδαξεν, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἠθέλἠσεν

If Socrates had taught your brother, then your brother would have wanted to kill the dog

Future Most Vivid (Future Simple)

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν δίδαξει, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἐθελήσει

If Socrates teaches your brother, then your brother will want to kill the dog

Future More Vivid (Future General)

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν διδάσκῃ, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἐθελήσει

If Socrates teaches your brother, then your brother will want to kill the dog

Future Less Vivid (Future Less Real)

εἰ Σωκράτης τὸν ἀδελφὸν διδάσκοι, ὁ ἀδελφὸς τὸν κύνα κτεῖναι ἄν ἐθέλοι

If Socrates should teach your brother, then your brother would want to kill the dog

I am teaching my introductory class conditional statements today. I am still using these highly suspect sentences.

Charlatans With Unjustified Confidence and Unmeasured Words

M. Cornelius Fronto to Marcus Aurelius (c. 139 CE)

“I believe that a lack of experience and learning is completely preferable in all arts to partial experience and incomplete education. For one who knows that he has no experience in an art tries less and fails less thanks to that. In fact, such hesitation limits arrogance. But whenever anyone uses knowing something lightly as expertise he makes many mistakes because of false confidence.

So, people claim that it is better to never taste Philosophy than to sample it lightly, as it is said, with just the lips. Those men turn out to be the most malicious kind, who travel to a discipline’s entrance and turn away rather than going completely inside. It is still possible in other arts that you can play a part for a while and seem experienced in what you do not know. But in how to choose and arrange words, one shines through immediately when he cannot provide any words but those that show his ignorance of them, that he judges them poorly, provides them rashly, and cannot know either their usage or their strength.”

1. Omnium artium, ut ego arbitror, imperitum et indoctum omnino esse praestat quam semiperitum ac semidoctum. Nam qui sibi conscius est artis expertem esse minus adtemptat, eoque minus praecipitat; diffidentia profecto audaciam prohibet. At ubi quis leviter quid cognitum pro comperto | ostentat, falsa fiducia multifariam labitur. Philosophiae quoque disciplinas aiunt satius esse numquam adtigisse quam leviter et primoribus, ut dicitur, labiis delibasse, eosque provenire malitiosissimos, qui in vestibulo artis obversati prius inde averterint quam penetraverint. Tamen est in aliis artibus ubi interdum delitescas et peritus paulisper habeare quod nescias. In verbis vero eligendis conlocandisque ilico dilucet, nec verba dare diu quis1 potest, quin se ipse indicet verborum ignarum esse, eaque male probare et temere existimare et inscie contrectare, neque modum neque pondus verbi internosse.


Image result for Head of Mercury Pompeii wall painting

Fresco, Mercury (Pompeii)


Allegory, Mixed Metaphors, and the Decline of Rhetoric

Quintilian 8.6.44

“Allegory, which we translate into Latin as inversion either communicates different things in words or meaning or something completely contrary. The first type emerges from continued metaphor as in “Ship, new waves will return you to this sea—What can you do? Make bravely for the harbor!” And that whole passage in which the ship stands for the state, the waves and storms stand for civil war and he makes the harbor stand for peace and agreement.”

[44] allegoria, quam inversionem interpretantur, aut aliud verbis aliud sensu ostendit aut etiam interim contrarium. prius fit genus plerumque continuatis translationibus, ut

O navis, referent id mare te novi
fluctus; o quid agis? fortiter occupa

totusque ille Horatii locus, quo navem pro re publica, fluctus et tempestates pro bellis civilibus, portum pro pace atque concordia dicit.

It is of utmost importance that you avoid this kind of mistake, that you move on from the kind of metaphor you began to another. There are many, certainly, who, although they have begun with a storm, end with a fire or collapsing building. This is a most wretched incongruity.

In general, allegory most often graces men of little genius in their quotidian conversations. For those phrase worn by their public use like “putting your foot forward”, “going for the jugular”, or “bloodletting” all come from allegory, although they do not gain much notice. For truly it is novelty and variation which makes for eloquence—and the unexpected delights even ore. For this reason, then, we have abandoned moderation and we have wasted language’s charm by striving too much for attention.”

[50] nam idquoque id primis est custodiendum ut,quo ex genere coeperis translationis, hoc desinas. multi autem, cum initium atempestate sumpserunt, incendio aut ruina finiunt; quae est inconsequentia rerum foedissima.

[51] ceterum allegoria parvis quoque ingeniis et cotidiano sermoni frequentissime servit. nam illa id agendis causis iam detrita, pedem conferre et iugulum petere et sanguinem mittere, inde sunt, nec offendunt tamen. est enim grata id eloquendo novitas et emutatio, et magis inopinata delectant. Ideoque iam id his amisimus modum et gratiam rei nimia captatione consumpsimus.

More on the Pharmacology of Language

Following up on Greek references to conversations with friends as a type of medicine

Gorgias, Defense of Helen 13-14

“The persuasion intrinsic to speech also shapes the mind as it pleases. We must first consider the narratives of astronomers who, by undermining one idea and developing another one, alter beliefs and make the incredible and invisible manifest to the eyes of belief. In turn, consider the necessary struggles in which one argument delights and persuades a great crowd when it has been written skillfully, even if it is spoken falsely. Finally, consider the rivalrous claims of philosophers which feature as well the speed of opinion that engenders volatility in the fidelity of a belief.”

 (13) ὅτι δ’ ἡ πειθὼ προσιοῦσα τῶι λόγωι καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν ἐτυπώσατο ὅπως ἐβούλετο, χρὴ μαθεῖν πρῶτον μὲν τοὺς τῶν μετεωρολόγων λόγους, οἵτινες δόξαν ἀντὶ δόξης τὴν μὲν ἀφελόμενοι τὴν δ’ ἐνεργασάμενοι τὰ ἄπιστα καὶ ἄδηλα φαίνεσθαι τοῖς τῆς δόξης ὄμμασιν ἐποίησαν· δεύτερον δὲ τοὺς ἀναγκαίους διὰ λόγων ἀγῶνας, ἐν οἷς εἷς λόγος πολὺν ὄχλον ἔτερψε καὶ ἔπεισε τέχνηι γραφείς, οὐκ ἀληθείαι λεχθείς· τρίτον <δὲ> φιλοσόφων λόγων ἁμίλλας, ἐν αἷς δείκνυται καὶ γνώμης τάχος ὡς εὐμετάβολον ποιοῦν τὴν τῆς δόξης πίστιν.

“The power of speech has the same logic regarding the disposition of the soul as that of the application of drugs to the natural function of bodies. For, just as certain drugs dispel certain afflictions from the body, and some end disease while others end life, so too are there stories that create grief and others that cause pleasure; some send us running, others make their audiences bold. Others still intoxicate and deceive the soul though some evil persuasion.”

 (14) τὸν αὐτὸν δὲ λόγον ἔχει ἥ τε τοῦ λόγου δύναμις πρὸς τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς τάξιν ἥ τε τῶν φαρμάκων τάξις πρὸς τὴν τῶν σωμάτων φύσιν. ὥσπερ γὰρ τῶν φαρμάκων ἄλλους ἄλλα χυμοὺς ἐκ τοῦ σώματος ἐξάγει, καὶ τὰ μὲν νόσου τὰ δὲ βίου παύει, οὕτω καὶ τῶν  λόγων οἱ μὲν ἐλύπησαν, οἱ δὲ ἔτερψαν, οἱ δὲ ἐφόβησαν, οἱ δὲ εἰς θάρσος κατέστησαν τοὺς ἀκούοντας, οἱ δὲ πειθοῖ τινι κακῆι τὴν ψυχὴν ἐφαρμάκευσαν καὶ ἐξεγοήτευσαν.




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