By Harry Mount:
Next time you curse a flashing speed camera or are undertaken on the inside lane of the M40, here’s a little tip: say your rude words in Latin. That’s what Mark Lowe, the millionaire hedge-fund boss being sued for wrongful dismissal, did when he sent an email quoting one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin – or in any other language, for that matter.
Ariane Gordji, a young woman seeking work experience, had asked Mr Lowe, an Oxford classics graduate, the meaning of: “Ego autem dico vobis: diligite inimicos vestros, benefacite his qui oderunt vos.”
It’s actually from the New Testament (Matthew 5:44) and means, “But I say to you: love your enemies; be kind to those who hate you.” Mr Lowe didn’t bother with a translation and instead answered with a chunk of Catullus’s Carmina (or “songs”), which is so sexually explicit that it wasn’t openly published in English until the late 20th century.
“Irrumabo vos et pedicabo vos,” wrote Mr Lowe, before kindly adding, “It’s Catullus, not very polite.”
Too right, it’s not polite; in fact it’s so rude that the English translation still can’t be printed in a family newspaper without using dashes. For those of a sensitive disposition, turn away now. Even with dashes, it’s pretty graphic stuff – “I will b—– you and face-f— you.”
Mr Lowe may or may not be the most enlightened of bosses. Another young woman, the one suing him for claiming he hounded her out of her job, also claims he brought prostitutes to business functions and made her attend strip clubs.
But I’m with him when it comes to Catullus. As he said in court, Catullus’s poetry “is not vile. It’s burlesque. It was always light-hearted in the first century and it is now.”
The poem was indeed a light-hearted skit, aimed at two critics of Catullus’s verse: “Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi”. More dashes, I’m afraid; this means, “—-sucker Aurelius and catamite Furius.”
Mr Lowe’s response, like Catullus’s poem, was also light-hearted. He took the bother to warn Miss Gordji that the translation wasn’t very polite. And he wasn’t insulting her personally; he says he was giving a jokey summary of his general philosophy on how to deal with your enemies. He also knew she knew no Latin, and so would only find out the meaning if she went out of her way to look it up.
But the Latin itself wasn’t rude to someone who couldn’t understand it. That’s one of the wonders of Latin – and why you should use it on the speed camera or that fool driver careening down the inside lane. Because it’s a dead language, understood by only a few Latin fans, and because it’s drenched in high-minded, august connotations, you can describe the most degraded sexual act, and most people will think you’re quoting from Virgilian epic poetry
in iambic hexameters.
There is no other language quite like Latin that can pull this off. An obscenity in a modern, living language would be too close to the bone. An insult in another dead language – say, ancient Greek or Assyrian – would simply be too obscure. No wonder, then, that Latin crops up the whole time as a supple device for advertising your wit, intelligence or evasiveness.
The Labour MP Denis MacShane was at it only last week, in his response to the Queen’s Speech. “Let me finish by saying that, as a House,” Mr MacShane told the Commons, “we are not rising to the geopolitical and national economic and social changes that face us. As Horace put it: ‘Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus’.”
No dashes needed here. This is from Horace’s Epistle to the Pisones, and means, “The mountains will go into labour, and give birth to a ridiculous mouse”, a neat expression to describe huge efforts that amount to very little. Poor old Denis got the tense wrong in his translation – he put it in the past, not the future – but he’d made his point. “I know Latin,” was the undertone. “I’m awfully clever and, by finishing on this quote, I know all about Ciceronian oratory and the need to end my speech with a flourish.”
The master of the well-deployed Latin quote is the Mayor of London. By injecting just the right squirt of self-mockery and gags, Boris Johnson can spray Latin allusions all over the place, without being pompous, but still, almost as if by accident, end up revealing the generous dimensions of his planet-sized brain.
When asked if he wanted to be prime minister, Boris said: “Were I to be pulled like Cincinnatus from my plough, then obviously it would be an absolute privilege to serve.”
Beautifully done. Just the right measure of braininess – Cincinnatus was the Roman leader called from his farm to take charge of Rome in 457 BC in the battle against the Aequians. In 16 days, he defeated the enemy and returned to the plough. But also, just the right measure of modesty. By placing his bid in those mock-highfalutin, comical, ancient Roman terms, Boris built himself an ejector seat from charges of overweening ambition.
The list of those who turn to Latin for its echoes of big brains and ancient grandeur includes Angelina Jolie, who has a tattoo on the lower slopes of her belly that reads “Quod me nutrit me destruit”– “What nourishes me destroys me”. It’s a kind of ancient anorexic’s slogan, a Roman version of Kate Moss’s “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”.
Of the 11 tattoos on David Beckham’s body, four are in Latin (and two of the others, “Victoria” and “Romeo”, are Latin-inspired names). On his left forearm, he has “Ut Amem et Foveam” – “That I might love and cherish”: nice use of the subjunctive there.
On his right forearm are punctured the words “Perfectio in Spiritu” – “Perfection in Spirit”. His skin art also includes the date of his renewal of his marriage vows – VIII.V.MMVI – and the English translation of the Emperor Caligula’s favourite catchphrase, “Oderint dum metuant” (“Let them hate as long as they fear”).
The Latin on Angelina Jolie’s tummy and pretty much all over David Beckham’s torso has echoes resonating back through the ages, and through the pens of the greatest writers of all time. That’s why they had their tattoos in Latin, not in English or Swahili.
The same goes for Roman numerals. Elizabeth II looks a lot more impressive than Elizabeth 2; ditto the 7 on the back of Beckham’s football shirt, which is commemorated on his right arm with a tattooed VII. (Even “ditto” comes from the Latin “dictus”, meaning “said”.)
For centuries, Latin’s ancient grandeur has appealed like this to people who want to come across as a little bit special. Precisely because it is a dead language and has no practical use, from the Norman Conquest onwards it won kudos among those who could afford to dedicate their time to fine prose, poetry and history rather than money-making disciplines such as science or engineering.
So the study of Latin flourished in grammar schools, Catholic schools and public schools for half a millennium. After nearly disappearing altogether in comprehensives over the past half century, it has – mirabile dictu (“wonderful to say”) – had a recent recovery.
The number of comprehensives doing Latin has doubled in the past decade, helped by a revival in the study of grammar, thanks to Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Harry Potter has chipped in, too. The Hogwarts curriculum is rich in Latin; its motto even includes a tricky gerundive – “Draco dormiens numquam titillandus” (“Never tickle a sleeping dragon”).
Thank God for this revival. And not because Latin is a pompous, grand or show-off language, or one in which you can write rude words safely. But because some of the best prose and poetry ever written was in Latin; not least by Catullus, who went way beyond sexual insults to produce the most stirring love poems to his beloved Lesbia.
Throw in satire, comedy, architecture, Roman numerals, Roman history and the correct use of Latinate English words, and the thrilling vitality of Latin never fades, centuries after its supposed death.