Formidable

Here’s an ode to a truly excellent word in Latin: formido.

Verb, root meaning to become firm or rigid, means something like “to be paralyzed with fear” or “to dread.”

Noun form is this dread, dread of an extreme intensity, and very often associated with the fear we properly have of the divine, the transcendent, God and his angels and the demons. What we feel when Jove hurls his lightning or we climb the mountain to stand in the presence of Apollo.

But a fun twist: formido is also a hunter’s gauge or bogy set up to frighten prey, to flush it toward the hunter or the net.  And so the formido is also an object that causes formido.

You can cross up these meanings.  St. Anselm/John of Fecamp uses it to describe the service of the priesthood–a great formido!–and the fear of contaminating the sacrament of the altar.

It is of course where we get the English word formidable, but “daunting” or “imposing” is not intense enough for how the word stands in Latin.  “Utterly petrifying” is better.

How is the priesthood “utterly petrifying?”  Anselm/John has the priest trapped by a fear that either reaction is to his doom.  Dare I approach the altar of God despite being so unworthy?  Do you know what happens to those who defile the sacraments?!  But then again, do you know what happens to those who disobey the commandments of God?!  Why have I been placed in this untenable position?  What do I do?  Is my service to my destruction or my salvation?

Terrifying!

 

Caesar Sunday

The Latin game of the week in the office comes from De Bello Gallico I.40: Caesar convincing his panicking Roman legions to sack up and fight Ariovistus and his German giants.  In the midst of his rhetorical genius, Caesar lays down this structurally stunning gem:

Si quos adversum proelium et fuga Gallorum commoveret, hos, si quaerent, reperire posse diuturnitate belli defatigatis Gallis, Ariovistum cum multos menses castris se ac paludibus tenuisset neque si potestatem fecisset, desperantes iam de pugna et dispersos, subito adortum magis ratione et consilio quam virtute vicisse.

I like to toss these up on a board structurally, with indenting to show the grammatical relations.  One of my least favorite things about the entire digital age is how difficult it is to do this on a screen.  Sometimes the old ways are best!  Since I’m not going to drive myself insane trying to replicate in MS Paint and I’m too lazy to set it up in Word and do a screen cap, you’ll have to take my word for it: it’s a cool sentence.

The apodosis (consequent) of the conditional sentence is, depending on how you want to look at it, unexpressed or borrowed from earlier in the paragraph.  Basically there’s a hidden “Caesar says” introducing an indirect statement.  Here’s my render: Continue reading Caesar Sunday

Exactitude

Amazing quotation to fire up the troops for study.  If you want insight into the world of classics, check out the title of the book it comes from.

“In Latin or Greek you must be absolutely right, or you are not right at all; you must know the meaning, the construction, the position in the sentence, of every word—and every one of these things implies a separate intellectual act—or you cannot give the sense of the original; no half-knowledge, no breezy catching of the general sense, is of the slightest avail, for the passage says to you in its every word, ‘You must know me not at all, or know me all in all.’ The man or woman who has mastered Latin or Greek knows language scientifically, and every other language theoretically is at their mercy.”

George G. Ramsay (1839-1921), Should Women Study the Classics? Opening Lecture at the Arts Course at Queen Margaret College, Glasgow, November 3rd, 1891 (Glasgow: James MacLehouse & Sons, 1891), p. 24

(h/t Laudator)

Res Sacra Miser and Christianity

The Latin quotation of the day yesterday in our office was res est sacra miser: A wretch is a sacred thing.  Our in-house discussion about its meaning (more on that below, if you want to skip being a Latin nerd) led to a scramble to pin down the citation.  The calendar claimed Seneca; some sources on teh interwebs said Ovid.  A nemesis of false attributions, I began to hunt it down.

Google turns up plenty of hits that show res est sacra miser in Latin quotation compendia like Routledge (variously attributed, or not at all).  That’s your first red flag when trying to clear up an attribution.  There are a lot of people on the internet and they talk about a lot of stuff.  It should not take too many pages of search hits to get to an indexed source book or a live discussion.  If all the early hits are anonymous or unsourced…look out.

Second red flag: the other hits are people asking the same question I am on classics discussion boards.  “Anyone know where this citation actually comes from?”  If you only knew how many times I tracked an “Augustine” quotation to this filthy lair of anonymity!

So then I did something easy.  I went to the Latin Library and searched the complete works of Ovid for every use of the word miser.  Seneca could wait. Continue reading Res Sacra Miser and Christianity