Miles Kington Remembered: Latin and curry are not really foreign – are they?

19 February 2002

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The British like to think of themselves as bad linguists, especially when it comes to Latin – yet the curious thing is that we all know more Latin than perhaps we realise.

The proof of this lies in the fact that we all use Latin phrases every day of our life. Lawyers do it for business reasons, of course, because the law is still stuffed full of Latin tags, but the rest of us will quite happily mutter things like per diem, terra firma, or curriculum vitae, sine qua non or modus vivendi without a second thought.

Why, we will even give pop groups Latin names like Status Quo or Procul Harum and not think it too odd. Our excellent local bookshop in Bradford- on-Avon is called Ex Libris, and nobody worries that it hasn't got an English name. Are you worried by a name such as Aquascutum, which is only Latin for waterproof? I didn't think so. Actually, the reason the British don't think it too odd to use foreign expressions is that they don't really think of them as being foreign. The British think that they don't like any kind of foreign muck, but the way that they get round this is to persuade themselves that any foreign muck that they do like is not really foreign after all. It's given favoured immigrant status and then quickly naturalised.

So we have easily persuaded ourselves over the years that our favourite foreign imports are really deeply British, such as the anorak, the cagoule, the duvet, rock music, burgers and so on. It is well known that the British don't like foreign food, so why do pollsters so often tell us that our all-time favourite dish is now curry? Because we think that curries are really British, of course. I am sure that many British people would be surprised to learn that something like curry is also quite popular in India, just as most Americans are amazed to find out that the Italians have got their own version of pizza.

So we are happy to speak Latin, as long as we don't admit we are doing so, because Latin still wins hands down over most languages for its pithiness. "In vino veritas", we say, which means that when the wine is upon us, we tend to blurt out the truth, but I cannot think of any way in English that we can say the same thing in three words, or even a few words. "In wine, truth"? "Wine brings truth"? "Wine is the best lie detector"? I don't think so. That's why we still say "in vino veritas". And "deus ex machina". And "ex cathedra". And "et cetera", of course.

Latin still pops up most often as a medium for sayings, tags, proverbs and mottos. "Nil desperandum," we say. "Noli me tangere". "E pluribus unum," say the Americans. "Per ardua ad astra," says the RAF. "Quo Vadis", said Hollywood, which was certainly much more impressive than calling it by its English equivalent, "Where Are You Going?"

"Caveat emptor", said a man on the radio the other day, assuming that we would all know that it was the Latin for "For God's sake, read Which? magazine and the small print before you buy anything". The reason that you can get all that into two Latin words is that "caveat" is a subjunctive form of the verb "cavere", meaning "let him beware".

No wonder the Romans ruled the world. They took half the time that anyone else did to say anything and thus had lots of time left over to hit people over the head and win the empire while everyone else was still finishing their sentences. "Will you do it in situ?" I heard someone say the other day, only to get the reply: "No, I'll get it done in absentia." Brilliant! Two people talking Latin to each other, however briefly. The great thing is that, however little Latin we think we know, we all have enough under the skin to tune into it and even to understand the odd Latin joke.

Don't believe me? Then here's the odd Latin joke. I was told recently about a school that was shamed into changing its school motto. The motto was "I hear, I see, I learn." Nothing wrong with that per se. Unfortunately the motto was in Latin, and the Latin for "I hear, I see, I learn" is "audio, video, disco".

A reader writes: Hold on, hold on! Was all this stuff about Latin just to justify the telling of a Latin joke?

Miles Kington writes: Mea Culpa

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