Selective use of Latin gives us class

The University of Ottawa has decided to stop issuing diplomas in Latin because it’s like not cool and hard to translate. Sic transit, I am tempted to say. But people might think I was talking about a Punjabi bus company, so I’d better settle for “whatever.” The Citizen says U of O had previously allowed students to get a diploma in Latin, English or French, and only five per cent (from the Latin per centum) chose the language of Cicero. Would it be snide to suggest that as an educational institution, the University of Ottawa had other options when faced with what the news story referred to as “declining student interest” in having Latin on their diplomas? Like making an ancient language compulsory. Or explaining to students that there are occasions, such as graduating from a prestigious institution of higher learning in the nation’s capital, that call for a degree of, you know, solemnity.

Regiments, universities and the Order of Canada have Latin mottos precisely because there are moments when we should rise above the mundane (from mundanus, worldly). And curiously enough, the motto of the University of Ottawa, right there on its coat of arms, is Deus Scientiarum Dominus Est (“God is the Lord of the Sciences”), which, times being what they are, you might not want people to understand lest it provoke a court case. Mind you, at hockey games and political events we cheerfully sing “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée/ Il sait porter la croix!” without turning into George W. Bush, so the habit of not thinking about what we’re saying may be sufficiently entrenched to relieve us of any legal worries.

Culturally it’s another story. I want to tell students there are moments for a backwards hat and moments for a mortarboard. At least, there are moments for a mortarboard. Instead all we have is backward hats. (Or is semi-sideways now the cool thing?) But then, I’m so old that when I graduated the chancellor did not high-five me.

I value the antiquity of Latin precisely because the Romans did not confuse novelty with improvement. Many, indeed, were deeply concerned about the decay of their institutions of self-government, whereas I just heard a Canadian legislator justify banning spanking, despite massive public opposition, by citing something even more unpopular that our government had imposed on us (women in combat). Don’t mention vox populi to him, I guess. The next day I read of psychiatrists prescribing buckets-full of antipsychotic drugs to children as young as three for problems including “poor frustration tolerance.” After we renounced more traditional forms of discipline. Or do I commit a post hoc fallacy?

OK, so I’m reactionary. But I think Latin imparts a modicum of class to matriculation from an educational institution. And I would assign students (from studeo studere, “to be eager, take pains, strive after”) the task of determining how many words in that sentence have Latin roots before sweeping it all aside like Vandals.

Speaking of Latin roots, the U of O justified its decision partly on the basis that there aren’t Latin words for “software” or “genomics.” Which would be funny if it weren’t sad, given where most of our scientific terminology comes from (like the wonderful ursus horribilis for the grizzly bear). So how hard is it to come up with, say, “programmum” for an individual program and “programma” for software in general? (Maybe harder than you think; as I noted a few years back, the Vatican’s new Latin dictionary incomprehensibly translated “computer” as instrumentum computatorium even though computer (-eris) would be a perfectly normal third-declension masculine noun, and easy to remember.)

Mind you, “program” comes originally from Greek, and I am tempted to say Zeus save us if we ask kids to learn another alphabet. Except if they’re doing math and science, I trust they already know about deltas and stuff. But if we need to keep it real simple, my dictionary says the Latin for “program” is libellus and I can think of a lot of worse titles than Doctor libellorum. Including ignoramus. Thus while genomics also comes from Greek, the Romans were not shy about borrowing Greek knowledge, so why not genomix (-icis)? It’s even pronounced the same way.

If that’s too much for you, isn’t diploma (-atis) an actual Latin word? Better start handing out like paper “done good” thingies. Plus this decision was taken by the University “senate,” an institution as well as a word derived from ancient Rome. And taken “unanimously,” which … et sequitur ad nauseam.

Tradition would have me wind up with a cry of O tempora o mores. Instead, I’m stuck with Quicunque, homo.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]