Redneck Latin (A South Mississippi refresher course)


A prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee recently said that the focus of the current impeachment inquiry into President Trump needs to shift away from the use of “quid pro quo” to describe Trump’s alleged behavior because “it’s probably best not to use Latin to explain it.”

Well, excuse me.

The implication is that those of us among the hoi polloi (Greek word meaning “the common people,” the great unwashed), not to be confused with “hotty toddy,” aren’t smart enough to unpack some nickel and dime Latin phrase.

This statement also strikes me as somewhat elitist and indicative of the growing divide between the red and the blue.

Such statements smack of the increasing disconnect between the “patricians” inside the beltway and we “plebeians” in the provinces.  Since Latin was the language of the late, great Roman Empire, it also brings to mind those naysayers who see in our charged political discourse evidence of the same malignant conditions that brought Rome to its knees: an empire too diverse to govern, military setbacks, government corruption, rotten from within, class warfare, and runaway debt.

Not to mention an economy built on slavery.

Around AD 100, the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, also accused his fellow citizens of only being interested in “bread and circuses.”

You can decide for yourself if any of these condemnations are relevant to the United States in the 21st century.

For the record, quid pro quo, or literally, something for something, tit for tat, “one hand washes another,” etc., was originally a medical term, where it meant substituting one medicine for another.

In medieval times, if the apothecary could not provide the medicine a person needed, they might get a substitute – a quid pro quo.

Personally, I’ve always preferred the offhand explanation offered by the late Democratic senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, who famously said: “To get along, you have to go along.”

Speaking of “AD,” so many people think that it means “after death,” referring, of course, to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Actually, it means anno domini, or “in the year of our Lord.” As far as that goes, up until the 6th century AD, our calendar was based on the founding of Rome in 753 BC.

In 525, a fellow by the name of Dionysius Exiguus re-jiggered the calendar to standardize the date of Easter. A mistake in his calculations ended up with Jesus being born in 3 BC which, of course, is a long, complicated story.

Latin is all around us. If you are like me, for example, you might have received your bill in the mail this week for your ad valorem (in proportion to value) taxes.

Perhaps the Washington politician was referring to “Pig Latin.” Many of us spoke it as children. I had two girl cousins who drove me crazy speaking it exclusively in my presence.

I knew how it worked, but I couldn’t think fast enough to process what they were saying.  It’s easy enough to learn.

For words that begin with consonants, all letters before the initial vowel are placed at the end of the word sequence. Then, “ay” is added, as in the following examples: “banana” = “ananabay” or “duck” = “uckday.”

For words that begin with vowel sounds, just add “way” or “yay” to the end of the word: “egg” = “eggway,” “I” = “Iway.” Obviously, it has nothing to do with Latin or pigs. It’s just a jargon used by children to confuse adults. Can you speak Pig Latin? (Ancay ouyay peaksay igpay atinlay?)

In late 1959, I was home on bootcamp leave for a few days, enroute to a ship overseas, and I bumped into a high school classmate who was a freshman at Ole Miss.

He told me that he was studying Latin in class, and I remember that I was so envious. I decided then and there to pick up as much of the language as I could in my travels.

Since then, I have been a tabula rasa or a “blank tablet,” learning and recording as much Latin as I could.

My classmate went on to enjoy a successful career as a lawyer, graduating magna cum laude (with great praise) from law school, graciously taking on many pro bono (free) cases for poor clients.

Latin is considered a “dead” language, only because it has no native speakers; however, it didn’t die because it morphed over time into the so-called Romantic languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Take page 2 of this newspaper, for example. The Latin word, obit, literally “He or she is dead,” is our “obituary” listing. Our “Rest in Peace” (R.I.P) is actually requiescat in pac in Latin.

Latin was originally spoken in Latium, the area around ancient Rome, and as the empire grew, it became the lingua franca or dominant language in Italy and the mother tongue of western civilization. 

It has contributed many words to the English language, particularly in the areas of theology, science, medicine, and law.

After the fall of Rome, Latin remained the language of the Church and of what sacred texts that were produced before the invention of the printing press.

It was rediscovered during the Renaissance by the Humanists who rediscovered and published the old manuscripts of such classical writers as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. Although Vatican II in the early 1960’s removed Latin from the Mass, except in the Roman Rite churches, it remains the official language of the Vatican and of the Holy See. The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) in the Vatican is the only one in the world where the instructions are in Latin.

Good luck with that.

If you are really interested in the history of Rome, you might want to read Mary Beard’s magnum opus (great work) “S.P.Q. R.” (2015),  the abbreviation for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (The Senate and the People of Rome) For over 300 years, of course, the ne plus ultra  (perfection) book in this area has been Edward Gibbon’s “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776),  but you have to wade through  6 volumes to get the whole story.

You may want to begin in medias res (in the middle) of that lengthy tome.

Incidentally, Gibbon’s take on the fall of the Empire was that it was primarily caused by the “rise of Christianity and the loss of the traditional Roman value system.” Obviously, this was a controversial theory.

When I was a young man, my two career choices were either to go to sea or to become a Jesuit priest. Latin speaks evocatively to both career paths.

Take, for example, the term in extremis, a sailor’s nightmare. Imagine that you have the watch and the conn on the bridge making the approach into New York City, about where the passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with the m.s. Stockholm in 1956 (sailors keep things like this plotted on their charts), with the fog so thick there’s zero visibility, and you can hear fog horns from other vessels all around you. ‘You look at the surface search radar and it paints several large contacts with constant bearing and decreasing range. ‘That’s in extremis. Actually, it’s the small fishing boats you have to worry about.

Or maybe you are the burdened vessel in restricted waters when a sailboat jibes in front of you, and there’s no place to go except hit them or run aground.  Make your choice.

The phrase ad nauseam, or the English “nausea” comes quickly to mind, which is also a symptom of the sea sickness (“mal de mer” – French) that plagues many erstwhile sailors.

Fortunately, in over 20 years at sea, that’s a problem I’ve never experienced. I can’t say the same for my wife.

Once we were taking a day trip from San Diego to Ensenada, Mexico, on a rather large ship and, before we even left the pier, I noticed that she was losing her breakfast over the side. I couldn’t even tell we were moving.  It’s real, though. I’ve watch others suffer and have been amazed at the variety of preventative “cures” that I have seen:  eat crackers to absorb fluid so the liquids in your stomach won’t slosh around; drink ginger ale; chew gum, etc.  My personal advice is to get topside for some fresh air; keep your eyes on the horizon; and always sit in a position so that your eyes can see the same motion that the body and inner ear feels.

It was ecclesiastical Latin that kept the language alive through the so-called Dark Ages. Such terms as Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Laus Deo (Praise be to God), Pater Noster (Our Father), and pax (peace), are familiar to many, whatever their religious persuasion.

A rabbi and I once designed and implemented a Master of Science degree in Organizational Management at Salve Regina (Hail the Queen) College, now university, in Newport, Rhode Island. As far as I know, it’s still in the curriculum. It sounds like religion, but it’s really theater: when you write a plot that has no satisfactory ending and there’s no way out, you can call on Deus ex machina (God from the machine) to save you.

In Elizabethan theater, a trap door might miraculously open to give the protagonist a way to escape otherwise certain death.

Here’s a couple of some of the other interesting “bon mots” (clever remarks – French) that I’ve collected over the years. How about intra muros, or “within the walls?” It reminds one of the origin of the French word, bourgeoise, which we think of as “middle class,” but which in medieval France referred to those burghers who were prominent enough to live safely within the city gates. Bad guys roamed the range at night.

In Manila, Republic of the Philippines, the old part of the central city, where the Spanish first settled, is referred to as “Intramuros,” and this is where the Japanese made their final stand when the American army returned in 1945.

Just a few blocks away is the famous old Manila Hotel, when General McArthur kept both his mother and his mistress before the war. When McArthur was a student at West Point, his mom, a general’s widow and the original “helicopter mother,” rented a house nearby and hovered over him his entire four years at school.

His girlfriend, a minor Filipina movie star, is somewhat famous for being a party to the first onscreen kiss in Filipino movies. My favorite breakfast at the hotel is smoked fish and fresh mangos, with the fish being as good as the smoked salmon you can get at the ferry boat landing in Seattle.

Another unusual phrase is possee comitatus (force of the country), which originally referred to a group of citizens organized by the authorities to deal with an emergency, as in the “possee” assembled in cowboy movies when the bank is robbed.

In the United States, the “Posse Comitatus Act” of 1878 forbade the use of the U.S. Army as an instrument for law enforcement without the approval of Congress. This act effectively prevents any branch of the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement.

Knowing this, I kind of wonder about sending the Army to guard the border, or about Ike sending paratroopers into Little Rock or JFK sending the Airborne into Oxford. 

Finally, the world of jurisprudence is also replete with Latin expressions. Although our legal system is based primarily on British Common Law (unless you live in Louisiana and have to deal with the influence of the Napoleonic Code), it was the Romans who essentially first codified the laws, at least in a Eurocentric sense, so the prevalence of their language is understandable. Thanks to Latin, we have such words as habeas corpus (you have the body), corpus delicti (evidence a crime has been committed), nolo contendere (I am wise not to contend), prima facia (at first glance), and compos mentis (of sound mind).

No, ut supra (as cited above),  I think we can handle quid pro quo.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: Read previous columns: