Sunday, November 28, 2010


The Word Suicide

Miriam Griffin, "Philosophy, Cato, and Roman Suicide: I," Greece & Rome 33 (1986) 64-77 (at 68-69, footnotes omitted):
The word 'suicide' is derived from Latin but is not an actual Latin compound (suus not being used in compounds). In Latin, it would mean 'the killing of a pig'. The first use recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1651, but in fact the word stands in the text of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (Part I, chap. 44) as published by the author in 1643. The Romans themselves resorted mostly to verbal phrases, the nearest to a technical term being voluntaria mors, 'a voluntary death'.
Latin sus, suis means pig. Here is the passage from Browne's Religio Medici (on Lucan):
There be many excellent straines in that Poet, wherewith his Stoicall Genius hath liberally supplyed him; and truely there are singular pieces in the Philosophy of Zeno, and doctrine of the Stoickes, which I perceive, delivered in a Pulpit, pass for current Divinity: yet herein are they in extreames, that can allow a man to be his own Assassine, and so highly extol the end and suicide of Cato; this is indeed not to feare death, but yet to bee afraid of life.
Anton J.L. van Hooff, "A Longer Life for 'Suicide': When Was the Latin Word for Self-Murderer Invented?", Romanische Forschungen 102.2-3 (1990) 255-259, tracks down the first occurrence of Latin suicida, in an attack on Seneca in a treatise by Gauthier de Saint-Victor (Walter of Saint Victor) entitled Contra quattuor labyrinthos Franciae and dated 1177-1178. Here is van Hooff's translation (p. 259, italics omitted) of the relevant passage (Book 4, Chapter 2), followed by the Latin:
Thus with great ingenuity he converted death itself and the pain of death in a great pleasure to himself. That man is not a brother-slayer (fratricida), but worse: a self-slayer (suicida); a Stoic by profession, he was an Epicurean in death; do you think that he has been given a place in heaven together with Nero, Socrates and Cato, all self-slayers (suicidis)?

Miro scilicet ingenio ipsam mortem mortisque dolorem vertit sibi in magnam voluptatem. Iste igitur non quidem fratricida sed peior suicida; Stoicus professione, Epicurus morte; putasne cum Nerone et Socrate et Catone suicidis receptus in celo?

Update: On suicidium as "the killing of a pig," see Christopher Wordsworth, Scholae Academicae: Some Account of the Studies at the English Universities in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1877), pp. 41-42 (footnote omitted):
The following anecdote will give a notion of a certain class of arguments which were occasionally brought forward in this century, when the disputations were on their last legs, and the establishment of the Classical Tripos had given courage to clever men who had no special capacity for mathematics. I have heard it from Mr Shilleto, of Peterhouse, who (I had hoped) would have revised this account. He was then a scholar of Trinity keeping a second opponency under Francis Martin, who was then moderator (late bursar of Trinity, seventh wrangler in 1824).

The question to be disputed was a trite and favourite subject, Recte statuit Paleius de Suicidiis. This last word is no doubt a barbarism, though to most English ears unequivocal, and sanctioned by time-honoured use in the Philosophical Schools. The Opponent aforesaid being called upon for an argument began thus: Non recte judicat Dominus Respondens de suicidio, ut ego quidem censeo, ergo cadit quaestio: si sues enim omnino non caedemus, unde quaeso pernam, hillas, sumen, unde inquam petasonem sumus habituri? Est profecto judaicum et, ut ita dicam'—'Erras, Domine Opponens!'' interrupts the Moderator, 'non enim de suibus caesis loquitur Respondens, sed de aliquo qui ultro sibi necem consciverit.' (All this while the Respondent, good mathematician and Johnian though he was, being unacquainted with the terms of Latin pork-butchery, was puzzling his brain to think how he could 'take off' an argument which he could not well understand.) 'Quid est ergo suicidium' (continues the Opponent) 'ut latinè nos loquamur, nisi suum caesio?'

Mr Martin, who had won Bell's and Craven Scholarships, and might (it was thought) have been senior classic, if he had been a candidate for honours in that new Tripos, enjoyed the joke, which would have been thrown away on Professor Farish had he been the moderator.


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