Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Biercean Latin

Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary is a fairly short book, but it contains a surprising amount of Latin. e.g. s.v. MIND:
From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto "Mens conscia recti," emblazoned his own shop front with the words "Men's, women's and children's conscia recti."
The phrase mens conscia recti comes from Vergil, Aeneid 1.604, more accurately mens sibi conscia recti, translated by R.D. Williams in his commentary as "your own inner knowledge that you have done right." In reality, mind is not derived from mens. They are cognate, with a common Indo-European ancestor.

In a few spots, Bierce invented new scientific names of species, e.g.:
RATTLESNAKE, n. Our prostrate brother, Homo ventrambulans.

SLANG, n. The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.
Despite Bierce's evident interest in Latin, his grasp of the language was a bit shaky at times, e.g. s.v.
R.I.P. A careless abbreviation of requiescat in pace, attesting an indolent goodwill to the dead. According to the learned Dr. Drigge, however, the letters originally meant nothing more than reductus in pulvis.
The fictitious Dr. Drigge was not learned in Latin grammar. This should be reductus in pulverem, not reductus in pulvis. The phrase means "reduced to dust, or ashes." Pulvis is nominative and cannot be the object of a preposition. All of the oblique cases show the stem pulver, whence English pulverize.There is also a mistake s.v.
ZENITH, n. The point in the heavens directly overhead to a man standing or a growing cabbage. A man in bed or a cabbage in the pot is not considered as having a zenith, though from this view of the matter there was once a considerably dissent among the learned, some holding that the posture of the body was immaterial. These were called Horizontalists, their opponents, Verticalists. The Horizontalist heresy was finally extinguished by Xanobus, the philosopher-king of Abara, a zealous Verticalist. Entering an assembly of philosophers who were debating the matter, he cast a severed human head at the feet of his opponents and asked them to determine its zenith, explaining that its body was hanging by the heels outside. Observing that it was the head of their leader, the Horizontalists hastened to profess themselves converted to whatever opinion the Crown might be pleased to hold, and Horizontalism took its place among fides defuncti.
The phrase fides defuncti is clearly supposed to mean dead or obsolete faiths. But fides is feminine, and defuncti is masculine. Bierce should have written fides defunctae.

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