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Lessons in Latin

Harry Mount
We didn't learn it at school, and aren't too upset about that. But Harry Mount reckons we should be

Every so often at school, when our class wanted to waste time, we would ask our teacher, “What’s the point of Latin, sir?”

The answer was a mix of things: that learning Latin grammar is good for your English grammar; that English words are derived from Latin words; that classics trains the mind. All that is true…sort of. Learning Latin grammar is good for your English grammar; not because they’re similar – but because they’re so different.

There are all sorts of things in Latin that just don’t exist in English: gerundives, ablative absolutes, sticking the verb at the end of the sentence. It is in learning the differences between these grammars that the brain really starts to dissect the building blocks of language – that, I suppose, the mind is trained.

Curious origins

It’s true that two thirds of English words are derived from Latin ones. But if you relied on original Latin word meanings to work out modern English meanings, you’d soon be in trouble.

The word ‘candidate’, for example, comes from the Latin candidus (-a / -um), meaning ‘white, pure, unvarnished’. It’s a long time since I’ve seen these words in the same sentence as a political candidate. The reason for the connection is that, in the Forum, Romans standing for office sprinkled themselves with white chalk dust to make them stand out in the crowd – so they became known as the candid, or the white ones. All very interesting, but not terribly useful.

The real joy of Latin is that it hands you the key to Roman architecture, satire, comedy, tragedy, poetry, philosophy and history – and then the Western European world clicks into place. In his novel The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst describes people who know the turning points in history as being able to look back at the world as a series of rooms: Greece gives way to Rome… Rome to the Byzantine Empire… the Renaissance… the British Empire… America… you can see the pattern.

Knowing Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the building, with a view down the corridor to the succeeding ages. And you can get your hands on the invitation at any age. Alfred the Great took it up in his thirties.

Five useless Latin phrases to try

1. Aegrotat: The malingerer’s degree. Literally “He is sick.” This is the name for an unclassified degree given to a student who is too ‘ill’ to do his exams.

2. Ave atque vale: “Hail and farewell.” Said by the Roman poet Catullus on his brother’s death: Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale. (“Hello and goodbye forever, brother.”) Could also be used by the sufficiently confident/pompous on bumping into somebody in the street they didn’t much want to talk to.

3. Benedictus benedicat: “May the blessed one give a blessing.” The shortest form of grace before eating. Say it under your breath, just loudly enough to be heard by your neighbour at dinner if you want to give off an accidental impression of holiness and a public school education.

4. De gustibus non est disputandum: “There is no disputing about tastes.” A rare use of the gerund, literally meaning ‘It is not to be disputed about tastes.’ If you want to show off and imply that this is the sort of expression you use all the time, even if nobody else does, it’s enough to say, ‘De gustibus…’: “There’s no question about it. Justin Bieber rules. De gustibus…”

5. Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor: “I see better things and approve of them, and end up doing the worse thing.” Originally from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the cry of the eternal drunk and the aspiring trashy novelist.

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Viking). Image credit: CC Anthony Majanlahti

Knowing Latin is an invitation to the biggest room in the building



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