The same joke, and it has lasted well

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The Independent Online
I was leafing through a brief biog of William Hogarth the other day, in case the subject should come up in conversation in this his tercentenary year, and I should have to display some rudimentary knowledge of the man, and one thing in it brought me up short. It was an entry describing young Hogarth's sixth year. "1703. Family moves to St John's Gate, where Richard Hogarth (father) opens a Latin-speaking coffee house."

The coffee house apparently did not prosper, as four years later poor Hogarth pere was in prison for debt, but I am not sure whether it was because the coffee was no good or because the obligation to talk in Latin was too daunting. It seems extraordinary to us today, when ancient Latin and Greek are not normally heard outside the classroom and not much inside, that there was a time when Latin was spoken as a colloquial tongue long after the last Roman had vanished, but it is not so long ago that Latin was considered necessary to a gentleman.

And it has not entirely vanished. There was a Radio 4 programme presented by Jeremy Nicholas not so long ago, which looked at Latin today and discovered at least one person who still talks Latin on a daily basis as part of his work. He was a jovial American working at the Vatican whose job it was to communicate with Catholic dioceses all round the world, and who often found that his only common language with a Latvian or Paraguayan cardinal was Latin. He did not speak Latvian or Spanish, and the man at the other end of the line did not speak English. Ergo, he used Latin as his lingua franca.

Well, you don't have to be very smart to realise that I managed to get three Latin words into that last sentence without anyone's eyebrows going up. Latin is still very much all around us. It may be a dead language, but its bones come to the surface every time we dig a bit. For instance, there was a good Latin joke in the Jeremy Nicholas programme which I think most people would still understand, and I will test that theory by bringing you the joke now.

Here is the joke.

Apparently there was a school which had to change its motto from Latin to English. The motto in English was "I hear, I see, I learn". Fair enough. Unfortunately, in Latin the motto came out as "Audio, Video, Disco".

Donnish chuckles. End of joke.

Of course there are Latin phrases which we use every day without thinking it strange, such as "status quo", or "anno domini", or "de facto". But there are other expressions, often abbreviations, which we use daily without perhaps realising that they have a Latin origin. Eg "Eg". (exempli gratia), "ie" (id est), "cv" (curriculum vitae), and "viz" (videlicet). Other languages tend not to do this. The German for "viz" is not "viz" but "dh", or "dass Heisst". The German for "eg" is not "eg" but "zB" or "zum Beispiel". I don't think German or French even have an abbreviation, Latin or native, for "ie", but we love our Latin abbreviations, even if we couldn't tell you what the original means.

This is especially true of the language of footnotes, which is full of expressions like "op cit" and "qv" and "cf" and "passim" and "sic". I had always wondered why the abbreviation for "compare" was "cf" until just now I did what I should have done 30 years ago and looked it up in the dictionary. It is short for "confer" which is presumably the Latin for "compare".

But the one I have always been wariest of is "ibid", short for "ibidem", meaning "in the same place", and this is because I once was present at a most embarrassing moment whose memory I treasure even now. I used to share weekly French tutorials at university with a fellow undergraduate called Martin, and one week we had both prepared essays on the great but not very interesting French poet, Alfred de Vigny. It was Martin's turn to read out his essay. The tutor and I sat there half-asleep until Martin, talking about some poetic trick of de Vigny's, said:-

"This particular poetic device is used a lot in Ibid, sir."

At this the tutor jolted awake.

"Ibid, eh? And what pray is Ibid?" said the tutor. "Oh, it's the title of a long poem by Alfred de Vigny," said Martin, obviously surprised that the tutor was ignorant of it. "It's very good. They're always quoting from it."

The tutor glanced across at me to make sure that he wasn't hearing things. I raised an eyebrow. We both exchanged a silent but very enjoyable guffaw. "Carry on," said the tutor.