Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rantus Latinus

Latin was once the language of scholars, and remains the language of certain religions, some of medicine, and various other people who are trying to be completely obscure.

This week, as mentioned in my previous blog, I was admitted into the society of fellows of Somerville College with a latin vow to uphold the laws of the college. This is the tradition of the college and was dutifully carried out by the Principal of the college -- roughly she reads a long latin passage stating my duties and I answer with just a few latin words that I will uphold them. Fortunately a translation was provided so that I knew what it was that I was promising. As for the performance of the principal, I was warned in advance that, although she is a very good principal of the college, latin is not her strong point and to try to keep a straight face as she struggles through her part. (In retrospect, I thought she did a very respectable job, slipping up less than Judge Roberts did in his administering of Obama’s oath of office).

At any rate, this confusing little ritual made me start wondering whether there might be some other latin around here that I would be wise to have translated in advance. Because as a kid I had an Oxford t-shirt (brought home to me by someone who visited there on vacation), I have long since known the latin motto of the school “Dominus illuminateo mea”. Although I probably could have guessed this in retrospect, I admit that I did have to look up the translation which is “The Lord is my light” (As an devout agnostic, I certainly prefer “Veritas” , but being that this was mainly a religious institution of learning for most of the last thousand years, I’ll give them a pass).

Next I went to find the translation of the motto of Somerville college which reads “Donec rursus impleat orbem”. Well, here, even after some head scratching, I really didn’t know what any of the words might mean. Fortunately I had been presented with a book history of Somerville college upon my arrival here, and I figured that it must have the translation in there somewhere. In fact, the only discussion of the motto is on page 47 where it states that “in 1892 ... Somervillians made their first attempt to interpret the baffling Somerville motto”. This left me scratching my head a bit more. But living in the modern age, I figured Google would come to my rescue. Well, alas, on the Somerville college web pages, it describes the college motto as “notoriously untranslatable”. Huh? It seems that this motto was cooked up either by someone who did not speak latin very well who simply wrote gibberish, or by someone who was deliberately trying to be obscure. Somerville was started in 1879 as a women’s college and was not accepted as part of the university until many years later. I have to wonder if all the (male) Latin scholars were snickering behind their back “Those women don’t even know that their college motto is meaningless!”.

The obscurity of this expression only made me more curious as to what the words might even sort-of mean. Fortunately, Google once again came to the rescue. On this page of hundreds of Latin phrases (in convenient alphabetical order), the Somerville motto “Donec rursus impleat orbem” is translated as “Until it again fill the world” –- whatever that means. Baffling indeed. The rest of the page of latin expressions is kind of interesting though. Right below the Somerville motto, the next expression on the list is “Donna nobis pacem” (Give us peace) certainly well known to all singers. The expression following that, though, is probably my favorite: "Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus" (Never tickle a sleeping dragon). This, of course, is the official motto of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Added: Apparently from the beginning it was known that this latin expression is nonsense. However, it was already established on the Somerville family crest and motto, and therefore was adopted by the college even despite it not making any sense. Mary Somerville for whom the college is named, was quite a spectacular woman but unfortunately came from a family that did not speak latin very well.


Tingitain said...

"Donec totum impleat orbem" = "Jusqu'à ce qu'elle remplisse le monde entier (l'univers)" = "Untill it fills the whole world" is the motto of Henri II, King of France. Elle/it here refers to the glory of the King.

"Donec rursus impleat orbem" is a derivative with the addition of the word again (rursus).

Totum = whole
rursus = again

Tingitain from Brussels

Steve said...


I'm also told (by a historian) that this phrase is a misquote of the Roman Statius.