Damnatio memoriae

I salute Steven L. Jones, a student at Houston Baptist University, for recalling another of those useful Latin phrases.  This one has application from George Orwell’s “memory hole” in 1984 to the NCAA sanctions against Penn State:

Question: What do Joe Paterno and the Roman Emperor Nero have in common?

Answer: damnatio memoriae

Damnatio Memoriae (Latin for “the condemnation of memory”) is the act of trying to erase a person from history. In the Roman world, this meant erasing the condemned man’s name from inscriptions, removing coins with his image from circulation, or defacing images and statues of him.

As you might imagine such an endeavor is extremely difficult to accomplish. Even in an age less bombarded by media than ours, it could be difficult to track down and remove every single mention of a person. People who generate great anger are normally people who have also left a lasting and far-reaching mark.

But more than being difficult, is it right?

via JoePa Meets Nero « Reflection and Choice.

How would you answer that question?

 

HT:  Micah Mattix

Latin as the language of botany

The field of botany has changed its requirement that new species have their official scientific descriptions be written up in Latin.  Now an English description–though not a description in some other language–will be acceptable.  (The scientific name will still be Latin based.)  The article on the subject, though, shows just how important Latin has been and still is important in the sciences.  For one thing, ironically, the English technical vocabulary that will replace Latin itself derives from Latin etymology.  From the Washington Post:

For at least 400 years, botanists across the globe have relied on Latin as their lingua franca, but the ardor has cooled. Scientists say plants will keep their double-barreled Latin names, but they have decided to drop the requirement that new species be described in the classical language. Instead, they have agreed to allow botanists to use English (other languages need not apply). In their scientific papers, they can still describe a newly found species of plant — or algae or fungi — in Latin if they wish, but most probably won’t. . . .

Although botanical Latin paid homage to the great Roman plant chronicler, Pliny the Elder, it quickly evolved into a specialized, descriptive and scientifically precise language far removed from classical Latin. The late British scholar William Stearn, who wrote the definitive reference book on botanical Latin, said Pliny would have understood the work of Clusius but not that of 19th-century botanical luminaries.

The wry joke is that even with the diminished role of Latin, the argot used by English-speaking botanists might as well be Latin. In describing flower parts, they speak of “the corolla tubular with spreading lobes.” The familiar thick green leaf of the magnolia is described in one encyclopedia as “elliptic to ovate or subglobose, obtuse to short-acuminate, base attenuate, rounded or cuneate, stiffly coraceous.”

As botanists increasingly seek to deconstruct organisms at the microscopic level and through DNA sequencing, the vernacular descriptions become even more opaque, said Alain Touwaide, a researcher and Latinist at the Smithsonian who would translate for botanists.

Keeping the Latin description, he argued, would ironically make it more understandable. “To make these notions understood, you have to create Latin words that have an etymological root that renders the word self-explainable,” he said.

via Botanists agree to loosen Latin’s grip – The Washington Post.

How words are invented

We had an interesting discussion about the post a few days ago about how the blind Puritan poet John Milton contributed more new words to the English language than anyone else.  Some people asked questions along the line of “how come he can make up new words and I can’t?”  Or “how come he can use words as different parts of speech and my mean old English teacher marked me down every time I tried it?”  It was also observed that new words are entering the English language all the time.  I realized that the process of coming up with new words is not generally understood.  So I will put on my English professor hat and explain. . . .

First of all, there needs to be a need for a new word, a “semantic space” in the language that needs to be filled.  Let’s use some of Milton’s words as examples.  His day, like ours, had a lot of “worship wars” in the Church of England.  The word “liturgy” existed.  But, earlier, that was pretty much the only kind of worship there was.  There was a need for an adjectival form of that word to distinguish that type of worship from the alternatives.  So Milton turned the existing noun into an adjective by adding a Latin adjectival ending.  Hence a new word that we use today in our own worship wars:  “liturgical.”

An even better, because more poetic, example:  The new Copernican cosmology meant that the earth and the planets spin around in a vast void.  In Paradise Lost, Milton needed to write about Satan flying to earth.  Dante in the Middle Ages had imagined Hell as existing in the center of the earth.  Milton imagines it more like another planet.  The word “space” existed to refer to expanse, area, extent.  Milton took that word and made it refer to the realm beyond earth’s atmosphere.  Satan flew through “space.”  What great poetry!  Imagine hearing that poetic image for the first time.  But now we have a new word, one that names something that was nameless before.

This process still continues.  New inventions require new words.  Like Milton, we to this day tend to go back to the classical languages for help in coining them.   “Computer” is from the Latin.  “Telephone” and “Television” are from the Greek.  (This is why it is so helpful to learn Latin.  You can decode just about any English “hard word.”) “Internet” combines a venerable English word “net,” associated with the already metaphorical “network,” to describe poetically a complex set of interconnections.   Then was added the Latin preposition “inter.”  Voila.  We have a new word.  “Facebook” combines two existing words into a new one.  “Google” takes a whimsical name for a really big number for a company, and then it was morphed into a verb.

It isn’t always clear who the mute inglorious Miltons were (name that allusion) who first came up with the new words that come into existence today.  But the process goes back to Adam:  God brought creatures to Adam, whereupon he named them.


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