Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

U-T Columns

 

In the so-called good old days in the United States, as in Europe, which supplied the model, anyone who went to secondary school and college studied Latin as a matter of course. Even in the first years of the 20th century, fully half of high-school students were still taking Latin. Many of those young scholars used to repeat this little jingle:

Latin is a language
As dead as it can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me!

The days of nearly universal Latin study are gone, and relatively few students are being “killed” by Latin anymore. But that doesn’t mean that Latin has expired, another victim of progress and “relevance” in a high-tech world.

Although no one speaks Latin as a mother tongue, countless people in many countries still read the language. Although the natural growth of Latin has ended and babies no longer learn it as a first language, the so-called dead language is very much alive and well and living robustly in our speech, writing and thinking.

If Latin derivatives were suddenly stricken from our vocabulary, we would be tongue-tied. Because Latin word parts are so ubiquitous (from the Latin ubique, “everywhere”), it is important to learn something about them. As one editor puts it, “Latin improves our ability to read, write and speak our own tongue.”

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, for example, wouldn’t make sense without the words I’ve italicized, which are all derived from Latin: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Note the word preamble. Every first-year Latin student learns that the verb ambulare means “to walk” and that the common prefix pre- (as in prefix) derives from a Latin preposition meaning “in front of” or “before.” Thus, the student of Latin knows that a preamble is something that comes walking before something else. In the case of the Constitution, the Preamble is a short but important philosophic statement that walks before the actual Articles of Constitution.

Every time you open your wallet and pull out a dollar bill, you are exposed to Latin. E pluribus unum means “one out of many.” As the motto of the United States, it refers to one government formed from many states.

The eight grammatical categories of English words are all renditions of Latin terms—noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction and interjection.

Latin is deeply woven into the language of science. The word science itself derives from the Latin scientia, “knowledge,” and the periodic table is filled with Latin names for elements, including aluminum, cesium and platinum. Latin is the international language of botany and zoology. More than 250,000 species of flowering plants have Latin or Latinized names. In astronomy, six of the eight planets in our solar system — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and the demoted Pluto — are named for Roman gods.

A high percentage of medical terms are Latin, including Rx, a Latin symbol for recipe.

Law employs a lot of Latin terms, such as ad hominem, de facto, habeas corpus, nolo contendere, quid pro quo, non compos mentis, caveat emptor, in extremis, in flagrante delicto, in loco parentis and ipso facto. Every rank in the U.S. Army from private to general is of Latin origin.

Another compelling reason for learning Latin is to read one of the great literatures of the world in its own tongue. Readers become acquainted with the Roman Empire and its people through its most articulate leaders and thinkers, thus gaining a perspective on their own social and political world. Roman civilization lasted a thousand years and, more than any other, formed our own. Nothing more succinctly expresses the need to take a backward glance o’er traveled roads through the classics than the Afro-American saying “If somebody asks where you goin’, tell ’em where you been.”

***

 On Thursday, December 5, starting at 2 pm, I’ll be presenting “An Afternoon of Language and Laughter” at the College-Rolando Library, 6600 Montezuma Road / 619 533-3902. Admission is free and worth every penny. I’d love to meet you there.