It's the Latin for lousy sales pitch

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The Independent Online
The other day, Richard Baker was talking on Radio 4 to the composers Richard Rodney Bennett and Geoffrey Burgon, and in the course of this enthralling chat, Baker asked Burgon about the Nunc Dimittis setting that had made Burgon's name and fortune, and Burgon said something like: "Yes, but when I first starting working on that score, it was a bit of a nuisance, because the producer was already using somebody else's Nunc ..."

Somebody else's Nunc. That stopped me in my tracks. Just for a moment I couldn't understand what he was saying. Then I realised that this was an abbreviation for Nunc Dimittis. When he arrived to do the film, they were already using a setting written by someone else of the Nunc Dimittis. But how much more pithy and direct to say "someone else's Nunc", which is what people obviously do in the sort of church setting circles in which you and I do not move.

I sort of didn't listen to the rest of the interview after that, just thinking in a pleasant sort of way about Nuncs, and wondering if people talked about Requiems and Magnificats as Reqs and Mags. The funny thing is that Nunc Dimittis is an abbreviation in the first place. It's the first two words (in Latin) of "Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word ..." just as Magnificat is the first word (in Latin) of "My soul doth magnify the lord" and so on.

So, whoever first started calling it the Nunc Dimittis was being pretty daring, as daring as whoever called it the Te Deum or Stabat Mater. (I know that Te Deum is short for Te Deum Laudamus but I'm damned, so to speak, if I can remember from my dim school church past what Stabat Mater was short for. If my Latin O-level is worth anything, "Stabat Mater" means "The mother was standing ..." but further than that I cannot go. Is there a famous part of the Bible that starts "The mother was standing

Of course, Latin abbreviations do come into the language without necessarily having church connections. The word "recipe" is simply the first word of all recipes in Latin: "Take ..." (followed by "two eggs" or "a peacock and stuff it" and so on). But nowadays it's a lot more fast-moving. The day after I had been thus musing in company with Richard Baker's guests, I found myself looking at some second-hand Saabs in the company of a Saab salesman who made the mistake of thinking I knew about cars and their workings.

"This," he said, "is a rather nice 9000 with a very good Speck."

I thought that is what he said. Speck is the German word for bacon. A Saab with very nice bacon? I thought I might be wrong. I rapidly went down the Nunc Dimittis route of abbreviation and came to the conclusion that Speck might be short for "specification".

"Good spec," I said. "Great. Does it have a sun roof?"

This is the sort of question I ask of car salesmen to postpone the inevitable moment when I have to ask an intelligent question.

"Sun roof?" he said. "No, because it's already got air-con."

Air-con. That must mean air-conditioning. I saw this in a flash. I also saw in a flash that I must never let the car man know that I didn't know that air-con meant air-conditioning, because otherwise he would despise me and charge me £1,000 more for a Saab. It was also obvious in another flash that expressions like these are constantly crossing over from jargon into the common language, like illegal immigrants heading into the US across the Mexican border.

"Any other questions?" asked the salesman.

"Yes," I wanted to say. "Do you suppose there was a time when the term `mod con' was a baffling bit of jargon used only by estate agents and when nobody realised it was short for `modern conveniences', and yet now we say `all mod cons' and probably don't realise any more where it came from, any more than we stop to think where `CV' comes from. There must have been a time when `nem con' was an opaque phrase, and nobody realised it was just a lawyer's smartass way of saying `nemo contra' (I hope I've got that right) ..."

But I didn't. I just asked him if the car had got PS.

"PS?" he said, puzzled.

"Power steering," I said.

"Right!" he said, as if he knew the expression well - which he couldn't, as I had just made it up.

I wonder if he is using it himself by now? Or singing someone else's Nunc, as we say in the trade.

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