Playboys and hot pants - in Latin

That wacky pope. Iucundus est, nonne? Over at the Vatican, where they speak Latin for fun and official business, an institute Paul VI founded in 1976 has produced a new lexicon of terms for things like hot pants, punks and computers that weren't around back when Caesar was crushing the Parthians or people were faking their own deaths to escape Nero's ghastly poetry recitals. Regrettably, the actual terms they've invented sound as though they were produced by a committee. Which they were. I am, unsurprisingly, in favour of Latin. I wish it were still taught in schools and some day I really will read Asterix et Normanii and Quomodo Indiviosulus Nomine Grinchus. At the moment I have a bit of an Ars longa, vita brevis problem (don't we all?). But Latin, as any readers fortunate enough to have studied it will know, is exceptionally elegant, supple and powerful. It is inflected; that is, it is the endings of words rather than their position in the sentence that tell you what they're up to, whether they're performing the action, having it performed on them, or even having it performed by them. Latin even has a special case, the "ablative," for all sorts of handy peripheral meanings like where something is happening or how it's being done. Thus, as vis means force, to indicate that something is being done by force you need only toss it in its ablative form vi, naked, wherever in the sentence you think it would sound best. Two letters speak volumes. Is this a great language or what? Unless, unfortunately, it falls into the hands of a pontificating ... sorry, pontifical, institute.

For instance, these guys turned "playboy" into "iuvenis voluptarius" and "hot pants" into "brevissimae bracae femineae." Literally they're accurate. But who wants literal? Latin was, like those who spoke it, ruthlessly practical and to the point. For instance, the proper Latin for head is caput (plural capita, as in per capita) but it was the legionnaires' slang term "testa," for "cooking pot," that produced the French "tête." Roman soldiers, administrators and citizens wouldn't call a punk a "punkianae catervae assecla" (though I do like "tromocrates" for "terrorist"), or a cigarette a "fistula nicotiana." And they certainly wouldn't call a computer an "instrumentum computatorium." (Memo to the Vatican: Since "er" is a perfectly reputable 3rd declension masculine ending with a complete declension available off the rack, the proper, indeed obvious, term for computer would be "computer" (with, pedants will immediately grasp, the genitive singular computeris).

In my high school yearbook someone composed a poem treating "motor bus" as a Latin phrase and working through, for instance, the nominative plural motores bi and the accusative singular motorem bum (yes, I went to an odd school). No offence ad pontificem maximum but your people could and should have drawn a lesson therefrom instead of turning basketball into "follis canistrique ludus."

Some folks may, at this point, be wondering what Latin is doing on my agenda (from "ago, agere" to act, meaning "that which is to be acted upon" just as "propaganda" means "that which is to be propagated" et caetera). They may suggest that fussing over the details of scholarly matters is a distraction from our ongoing attempts to solve pressing, festering problems with solutions both ill-conceived and sloppily implemented. And some young people may feel too rebellious to interest themselves in something the cool herd isn't grazing on. To which I reply O tempora O mores.

Latin could have some distinctly practical uses. For instance the usual suspects within the European Union are frantically trying to stop English from becoming its de facto official language, an increasingly expensive, time-consuming and futile struggle now that expansion has brought the EU 25 languages into which every last memo and bus transfer ought to be translated. The obvious solution: Adopt Latin. It would be convenient, serviceable and avoid outbursts of chauvinism.

More broadly, a revival of Latin would help people appreciate the languages they speak in much of the world, including Canada, by showing them the derivation and subtle meaning of many splendid words such as "egregious." And if taught in schools it would impart an unmistakable, powerful rhythm to students' written and spoken prose. If only someone would produce neologisms a Cato or a Cicero would have deigned to speak, and legionnaires would have been willing to carry to the distant corners of the world, not dump from their kit at the first rest stop.

As to the Vatican's new words, I appreciate the effort, but in view of the results I'm afraid I can only say "Veni, vidi, risi."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson