"Quid Pro Quo" | The ‘dead’ language that describes all we see, know and do
It was perhaps Shakespeare’s fault. In his “Julius Caesar”, a conspirator, reporting the intention of a likely sympathiser, admits he could not understand him as “it was Greek to me”. Some genius later added Latin to the phrase and these two significant languages began to be dismissed as archaic and obscure. But are they?
Not by a long shot. They may not be spoken any longer in public, but they live on in our daily lives. For it is in them that most of the words we use to describe ourselves and much of everything doing with our politics, society, law, religion, business, education, philosophy, literature, science, culture, were first coined, or are derived.
Republic, vote, consensus, festival, family, jurisprudence, crime, credit (and debit), pupil, morals, discipline, celebrity, machine, ritual, calendar, humour, doctor or even science – the examples of words coming from Latin or Greek, via it, can be endless. And each has a story behind it in the sense of what it first connoted or in the way it became slightly modified to the form we know and use now, and it is these fascinating tales that classicist Peter Jones acquaints us with in this book.
Take for example, vote, the crucial ingredient of democracies. The Latin for vote was suffragium, which gives our suffrage, and “in time, it also took on the meaning ‘influence on behalf of a candidate for election’, and even ‘bribe’!” but our vote derives from Latin votum, “which bore no relation to voting at all: it meant ‘vow, offering, prayer, pious wish’”.
“Well, perhaps some relation,” quips Jones, who has taught the Classics at Cambridge and Newcastle Universities till 1997 and wrote a column and several popular books on the subject. And there are much more in this vein, from discrimination to cement, from mirror to carpenter, and from seminars to prejudice.
Citing adrenalin and microbes, which are Latin and Greek compound words respectively but were only created around the 20th century, Jones says English is full of “such predominantly technical words, invented over the past 400 years to provide the “specialised vocabulary” for then developing disciplines of science and medicine.
And if these are considered, “you could say English was 90 per cent Graeco-Latin”, but these invented words are not what Jones focusses on here. “With the occasional exception, the subject of this book is English words derived, with minimal change from Latin, and ancient Greek words used by the Greeks and Romans themselves, whether in the same sense as we use them or not - words such as ‘plasma’, ‘electron’, ‘fornicate’, ‘prune’, ‘cement’, ‘agony’ and ‘poet’,” he says.
And stressing that this is not only a book of words and list of words, with the aim “to give the reader sense of the culture and history of the ancient Roman world...”, he takes on a fascinating journey of discovery across a wide span of human activities whose key concepts as expressed in language are linked to Roman civilisation. His work is also a compelling account of how meanings or words change over time, and why languages flourish or die out.
Latin, contends Jones, survives, even in this avatar, since it quite early developed prose as “a means of political and moral persuasion” and this went to be used as “a medium for facts, arguments, instructions, propaganda and so on, especially technical matters”. Besides its secular use, its survival owes to use by all sections, and its powerful and influential sponsors (the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and scientists since the Renaissance) and its progeny - all the key West European languages.
And by this book, Jones also answers a key question - for Monty Python fans.
“But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” asks a rebel leader in their subversively satirical film “Life of Brian”.