What can it all mean?


As a survivor of a Jesuit high school, I have a fit of Latin from time to time. At times I do it from an impulse to camouflage a political sentiment that I think may offend some of my readers, who are so few that I cannot afford to alienate even a single one. Sometimes, however, I am merely showing off, appropriating the eloquence of another when my own is lacking, or lending cachet to something quite ordinary by adorning it with an esoteric epigraph. I realize that it can be irritating, and I apologize. To save those who are curious about such matters the trouble of deciphering the Latin, here are the translations and some explanations.


album mutor in alitem / superne nascunturque leves / per digitos umerosque plumae

I am turned by heaven into a white bird, and light feathers sprout from my shoulders and fingers... (Horace)

[The poet imagines the fame of his verses carrying his reputation, metaphorically represented by his transformation into a far-wandering bird, to distant lands. This used to be the epigraph of the entire site, until I switched to...]


veni nec puppe per undas nec pede per terras -- patuit mihi pervius aether

I came not by ship over the sea, nor on foot over land -- the unresisting air made way for me. (Ovid)

[Triptolemus, spreading the gifts of Ceres -- edible grains -- about the world, explains his errand to King Lyncus of Scythia, who, in an early version of the goose that laid the golden eggs, promptly decides to kill him.]


Ignotas animum dimittit in artes.

He turns his mind to unknown arts. (Ovid)

[The "fabulous artificer" Daedalus is about to invent wings. James Joyce used this line as the epigraph of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.]


sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt

Men weep here too, and mortal troubles touch their hearts. (Virgil)

A very loose translation; literally, it's "there are tears of things, and mortal matters touch the mind." Aeneas and his crew, who have been shipwrecked near Carthage, come upon murals depicting the fall of Troy, of which they are among the few survivors. Aeneas tries to reassure them that the locals are also human and will most likely receive them hospitably.


Ex africa semper aliquid novi.

Always something new out of Africa. (Pliny)

[I thought of this line, from which the wonderful book Out of Africa takes its title, on election day.]


Discedit frutex, ubi patriam ulterius lacerare non potest.

Bush is gone, where he can no longer tear the country apart. (Praesidium)

[This was on inauguration day. Frutex means bush, but the comic writer Plautus also uses it as a word of abuse, translated as "blockhead." "Ulterius lacerare" echoes the inscription upon the tomb of the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift: Here lies J.S., ubi saeva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequit -- that is, "where bitter indignation can no longer wound his heart." I misremembered the epitaph and put non potest in place of nequit; they are synonymous, and mean can't. Nequit may be stylistically better -- I'm not a good enough Latinist to know -- but I think I was unconsciously drawn to lacerare non potest by the rhythm, which is that of the end of a dactylic line, one of the standard forms of Latin verse.]

As a footnote, Obama has turned out to be no less divisive than Bush was.


annuit coeptis

He (God, Fate, or the Great Pumpkin) approved the enterprise.

[From the weird symbolic graphics on the dollar bill; the complete quote, referring to the founding of the United States, is annuit coeptis novus ordo seclorum: literally, "the new world order nods to the undertakings." ]


Neaera's Hair

Alas! What boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted Shepherds trade,
And strictly meditate the thankles Muse,
Were it not better don as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair?

This is from Milton's Lycidas. I take it as a personal reproach, like this sentence from Middlemarch:

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.