Saturday, December 16, 2006


The Study of Latin

E.B. White, letter to Mitchell Uscher (Feb. 1974):
I studied Latin when I was in high school. I had a good time with it and have never regretted the experience.

A great many words in the letter you wrote to me had their roots in Latin -- a word like "curriculum," for example, or "relevance." And although the skilful writer of English prose tries to avoid words derived from Latin in favor of Anglo-Saxon words, there is, I believe, a great advantage in knowing Latin. It helps you find your way around in the English language, so that when you encounter a common word like "opera" you know you are dealing with the plural of "opus." Or when you come across the word "interpose," you can immediately dissect it: inter-, between + ponere, to put or place.

I recommend the study of Latin for today's students in today's world -- a world that closely resembles yesterday's world. You speak in your letter of modern education "tending toward career-oriented goals." In my day, fifty years ago, we did not tack the word "oriented" onto everything, but we were just as interested in a career, just as eager to reach our goal, as are the young students of today. Latin is good discipline, good reading, and the study of it makes good sense. When you know Latin, you know enough to say "guts" instead of "intestinal fortitude."

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