Dum spiro, spero

Way back when I, at the tender age of 12, was choosing subjects that would decide what I was going to be when I grew up, I could have opted to take Latin. Instead I went for French. There are few things I regret in life, but if I had to dredge the memory bank for just one, that would be it. I should have taken Latin.

A good friend of mine, the inimitable BA, who lives down by the Balaton, is fond of quoting in Latin. I particularly like his prayer before drinking:

Ex humore merum cui fecit diva potestas
Christe, refecturis humilibus benedic

Christ, for whom divine power made wine from water,
bless the humble ones about to turn some back

I have a love/hate relationship with the language – I hate the fact that I feel so stupid when I don’t understand what’s being said and yet I love when I discover the meaning. His latest contribution to my ever-expanding Latin vocabulary was dum spiro, spero – where there’s life, there’s hope.

I’ve been flitting around the idea of learning the language, but then remind myself that  I might be better served learning Hungarian. Yet there is a host of free resources available online and I could learn from the comfort of my own flat, at a time I chose. Learning Hungarian would be of more use, though, and my brain power is limited.

[I was surprised to see that a couple of the Harry Potter books have been translated into Latin, as has Rebilius Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe). Who’d have thought it? ]


But there are dangers in taking up Latin – especially for someone who has been known to make the occasional (ahem) incorrect assumption. Apparently, in Latin, one word can have many meanings, which gives rise to many idiomatic phrases. Translating individual words from Hungarian usually adds up to a semi-coherent message in English (not the other way around, though). But not so in Latin. The dangers of making false assumptions about a word’s meaning, or, worse still, seeing it as a single word and not part of a phrase, can wreak all sorts of havoc. Take the phrase hominem e medio tollere – to kill a person. My painstaking effort to translate resulted in ‘to remove a man from the middle’.

I’m tempted to replace my usual greeting of ‘What’s up?’ to ‘quid agis?’ Sounds classier, no? And what about these for conversational accessories?

  • docendo disco, scribendo cogito (I learn by teaching, think by writing)
  • in omnia paratus (ready for anything)
  • memento vivere (remember to live)
  • de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste, there can be no disputes)

Mind you, Latin does have a certain pretentiousness about it, which lends itself beautifully to those (meí?) wanting to sound more intelligent than they actually are. Cue the phenomenon of dog Latin – dropping any vowels from the end of an English word and adding  -us, -icus, or -ium. Remember The Vicar of Dibley, and the Horton family motto Veni, vidi, brutus spearium gloriosus, which is Dog Latin for (in David Horton’s words) ‘I came, I saw, I tore the thick bastard limb from limb.’

The Art of Manliness has a great blog post on Latin, if you’re interested in reading more.


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