Friday, December 06, 2019


A Good Book for Reading Aloud

Robert Benchley (1889-1945), "The Dying Thesaurus," Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949; rpt. Leyden: Aeonian Press, 1976), pp. 150-151:
Just think what it would mean to have a complete history of every word in the Latin tongue from earliest times right plumb up to the Middle Ages. You may think perhaps that the history that you have is complete enough, but does it bring the thing up to the Middle Ages? Suppose, for instance, that a dispute were to arise some night at dinner over the history of the word agricola.

"I'll bet you two seats to the Follies," you might say to your brother-in-law, "that the word agricola used to be practically interchangeable with the masculine demonstrative pronoun hic. Agricola means 'farmer,' and so does hic, or, as it has come down to us in English, 'hick.'"

One word would lead to another, or perhaps to something worse, and the upshot of the whole thing would be a hurried reaching for your vest-pocket history of Latin words and phrases. And what would be your chagrin to find that the volume began with the First Punic War and gave absolutely nothing previous to that period that you could rely upon!

We are a thorough people and we demand that our history of the Latin tongue shall be thorough. As the popular song-hit has it: "If our thesaurus ain't a real thesaurus, we don't want no thesaurus at all." That's the way the rank and file of Americans feel about it. Home life is the basis of all our national institutions and there is nothing that contributes to its stability like a good book for reading aloud.

"What shall it be to-night, kiddies?" says the father, drawing up his chair before the fireplace in which stands a vase of hydrangeas, "the story of how mensa came to have its feminine ending?" "Oh, no, Daddy," lisps little Hazel, "read us about the root verbs which are traceable to the Etruscan influence on the early Latin language. You know, Daddy, the one about the great big prefix, the middle-sized prefix, and the little baby prefix which went 'huius, huius, huius' all the way home."

And so the father read the old, old story of how the good fairy came and told ad, ante, con, in, inter, ob, post, prae, pro, sub, and super that some day they would grow up and govern the accusative and how it all worked out just as the good fairy had said. And all the little children fell asleep with smiles and post-toasties on their faces.
Con must be a misprint for contra.

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