The Etymology of the River Tiber: Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V 30

I am spending this month in Italy with students.  I will be in Rome three or four times. Varro is helping me stock upon anecdotes to give the appearance of erudition….

“There are two traditions about the name of the Tiber. For both Etruria and Latium believe that the river is their own. There have been those who claim that the river was first called the Thebris after a nearby ruler of the Veians. There are authors who report that the early name was changed to honor Tiberinus, the Latin king, after he died there—since, as they claim, this is his burial site.”

Sed de Tiberis nomine anceps historia. Nam et suum Etruria et Latium suum esse credit, quod fuerunt qui ab Thebri vicino regulo Veientum, dixerint appellatum, primo Thebrim. Sunt qui Tiberim priscum nomen Latinum Albulam vocitatum litteris tradiderint, posterius propter Tiberinum regem Latinorum mutatum, quod ibi interierit: nam hoc eius ut tradunt sepulcrum.

On the Difficulty of Poetic Language: Varro, On the Latin Language VII 1.1


“The words of poets are hard to analyze. For often sudden destruction has obscured a different meaning used in prior times or else a word has been changed from the same letters it used when some of them have been taken away and for this reason the intention of the one who used it is unclear. It isn’t necessary though to find fault with those who, in trying to understand a word, add a letter or subtract that one so that what underlies this expression may seem easier. In the same way, so that the eyes may see the unclear work of Myrmecides’ ivory, we place black material behind the sculptures.”


Difficilia sunt explicatu poetarum vocabula. Saepe enim significationem aliquam prioribus temporibus impositam repens ruina operuit, aut verbum quod conditum est e quibus litteris oportet inde post aliqua dempta, sic obscurior fit voluntas impositoris. Non reprehendendum igitur in illis qui in scrutando verbo litteram adiciunt aut demunt, quo facilius quid sub ea voce subsit videri possit: ut enim facilius obscuram operam Myrmecidis ex ebore oculi videant, extrinsecus admovent nigras setas.

Semantic Change and the Challenges of Linguistics: Varro, On the Latin Language, V.2-3

Varro, 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.