Archive for the 'Latin' Category

Word association

June 13, 2015

I wrote a comment Friday night in which I used the word “amanuensis.”  I even replied to a reply about my word choice Saturday morning.  And, as I said there, the word was something that “burbled up” from within me, and when I thought about it after it did, I liked it enough to use it.  It was in reference to Gov. Scott Walker, in a comment on a Joe Nocera column.

It occurred to me later that there was probably an element of word association going on.  Earlier on Friday evening on I had watched Washington Week on PBS, and one of the participants was Manu Raju, senior congressional reporter at POLITICO.  I see his first name on my television screen and I immediately think of the Latin word manus, particularly in the ablative case, manu.  And I wondered if there was any connection between the two words, what with all the branches and roots on the Indo-European language tree.

Manus in Latin means “hand.”  I am particularly attuned to noticing the word because of its usage in naming a particular type of Roman marriage, marriage with manus, since I spent some number of years worrying about Roman marriages and inheritance practices and such.  Whether or not the marriage was with manus was significant for determining whether the woman would inherit from her father or from her husband.

So I think one of the ingredients in the stew that produced “amanuensis” in my comment was my earlier mulling over the name of POLITICO’s reporter.  I don’t whether to apologize or to say thank you, I mean no offense and I am grateful for the word choice coming to me.  I think my larger reaction is to be interested in how things seem to ebb and flow (or maybe go up and down, surfacing and descending, like bubbles in boiling water) and mix within the mind.

The definite article

December 23, 2013

I really do mean the word “the” in English.

I used it in a comment about the deficiencies, in my experience, of a secular approach to life and its issues.  This was in response to the Ross Douthat column “Ideas From a Manger” in Sunday’s Times.

I referred to “the horizontal relationships” because I was distinguishing them from “the vertical ones.”  But by using the definite article and not just referring to “horizontal relationships,” I may have made possible the interpretation that I was referring to my own relationships happening to be inadequate to the task of helping me deal with a situation adequately, not to the more general phenomenon of human relations being inapt for some issues, period.  (I wrote, in part, “In my experience, the secular approach has nothing to offer when the horizontal relationships are inadequate. And there really are some situations in which the horizontal relationships are inadequate to the task — again, in my experience.”)

Sometimes a little misprision can have a big impact, for better or for worse.  In my context, it probably doesn’t much matter, given how limited the reach of my comment, but I was interested in it as a opportunity to understand how misunderstandings can get started, including in religious texts.  Just a little change in emphasis in translating from the concept into language at all, or the translation of the idea and words from one human language to another, can get it started.  Some languages have demonstrative adjectives but no definite articles.  That’ll make a difference in emphasis and thinking.  And to give another example of how emphasis can get transformed, as I recall it, Latin does something very different from what English does when it expresses the report of something negative — the negative goes with the reporting verb, not the thing reported.  It looks like “I deny that X happened,” where in English we would say that “I say that X didn’t happen.”  That can make a difference in emphasis, too.

The content of the interpretation I did not intend in my Douthat comment is also not wrong in itself, I think, anyway — vertical relationships are available to people whose human ones happen to be inadequate, even if others have human (horizontal) relationships that would be adequate to the situation, I think.  But that wasn’t really what I intended to say, in part because secularists tend to take that to mean we should all only focus on our human relationships and improving them.  Telling that to child born into a family of narcissists is like telling the child to get water from a stone, although many children will eventually, when they can choose their own relationships, find substitute ones that will fill in for deficits in family relationships, at least to some extent.

So I actually think there are two dynamics:  one in which one finds oneself in a situation in which one’s needs exceed what other human beings can help with, and the other in which one happens to find oneself short of what one needs, like being short of change when buying a pack of gum, because of weaknesses in one’s own human relationships (for whatever reason or reasons).  In both cases there is, I believe, help available through vertical relationships.  I don’t think God or the universe invokes the lawyer’s concept of needing to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, I think grace is available on a much more generous basis.  I don’t think God is like a clever lawyer any more than I think God is like a cranky parent (and I don’t think God is like a cranky parent).


July 21, 2013

I got an email recently, an automated one, thanking me for requesting some materials from a brokerage firm.

I didn’t request them.  I agreed to receive them when an employee from that company was making a pitch to me on the phone — it was a way to end that part of the conversation and get back to what the original agenda was supposed to be.

It’s interesting, because I’ve had others do a variation of that when I’ve been in the other role, but often the scenario has included my interlocutor embellishing their willingness to entertain my proposal — and I have taken that embellishment as a reflection of their willingness to go further than entertain my proposal (which sometimes has been in the form of a statement of need).  I am pretty sure that in many cases, my interpretation that they were on board was welcomed and encouraged by them — a few even were explicit that they were on board.

But I suspect that in some fundamental way none of these people ever really moved off the space of being willing merely to entertain the issue, and that they didn’t feel obliged to follow through because in some way they had never committed themselves to what they had indicated to me they were going to do.

And for me the lesson has been that people can do that, regardless of the impact on me, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, and certainly regardless of (my) need.  It has been damnum absque injuria.

For me, Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black” comes closest to depicting someone trying to make amends in this kind of situation.  Don’t know what the other person, the person addressed in the song, thought of the attempt.

I had a friend in high school whose mother had died when she was twelve (from breast cancer).  Kelley more or less raised her younger sister and three younger brothers, they had very little money, and she was in honors classes and went on to a prestigious university.  She used to say, “Take what you can when you can and be grateful.”  She died at the age of 28 from ovarian cancer.  I suspect she had (figured out?) a more helpful attitude than I have towards the type of scenario I still struggle with.

Finding one’s voice

April 12, 2013

I’ve been accusing other people of needing to find theirs, so chances are it’s on my to-do list.

I had a friend whose vocal chords were damaged during thyroid surgery and had to leave her field of teaching.  Her reinvention of herself is an interesting tangible illustration of this.  She became an education liaison for a large scientific project.  On the other hand, even after many years, she seemed to feel her mood state had not recovered from the surgery, despite the medication to replace the thyroid hormones.  She found her voice again and yet she didn’t.

My first serious boyfriend expressed his concern repeatedly that I would succumb to what he perceived as family pressure to go into science.  I think he thought I’d lose myself and my voice if I did that.  (He is a musician and works as a literary editor in that field, I think.)  A teacher of mine pressured me to break up with him (stupid of me to accede to that), having pressured me to sign up for his classes and more.  In turn, a math teacher tried to rescue me from that teacher and pull me into the math/science world.

I think ultimately I pushed it all away but only after being shaped by the disciplines and personalities.  I don’t think I pushed it away on purpose, rather, this is in effect what seems to have happened if I look at it in retrospect.

Where does that leave me in terms of finding, and maybe describing, my “voice”?  For sure, especially at my age, I’m a little past letting everyone else tell me where it is to be found.  Sometimes I think finding it is a matter of pausing and observing what I tend towards once I put aside all the clamoring requests and dutiful tending to administrative, and other, responsibilities.  And that I guess I’d characterize as seeing things without as many common assumptions as most people seem to harbor, kind of like a voice of reminding that there are other possibilities.


March 13, 2013

That’s what my dad called the plural of crocus, the little spring flowers that grow from bulbs.  And yes, he, too, took Latin (and apparently won medals in high school for his achievements — my mother gave me some after his death).  He saw the word as part of the second declension.  He referred to more than one Kleenex as Kleeneses, putting that noun in the third declension.

Anyway, I saw my first crocuses of the season today, little light purple ones.  And someone put a vase of (forced?) forsythia in the ladies’ room we use at the hospice where I volunteer.  On the bike path the other day I was nearly sideswiped by a bundle of pussy willows in a bike rider’s backpack.

So spring is sort of here, even if there is still snow on the ground.


February 11, 2013

My mother has taken to drinking tea since my dad’s death, and while I was there, we’d put up the kettle for both of us.  It doesn’t have a whistle, so after the noise of the water coming to a boil would stop, we would look for the steam coming out of the nozzle.  And we would say, “Habemus papam.”  Two Latin majors.


January 7, 2013

I think I’m one of those.  Actually, I think we all are, whether we’re effective at being one or not.  I think we are conduits for forces we are only dimly aware of.  Sometimes the forces mix with us and what comes out is, for example, art, sometimes it is addictive behavior or even psychosis, sometimes theoretical physics, sometimes a combination of things, including a combination of useful and destructive things.

What I have thought vaguely for a while is that I can hear some interesting things that I could never have thought of, and that I can translate them into words and try to communicate them to other people.  I want to let those interesting things come through into the world — they are more helpful than what I could come up with through my intellect.

What I think I’ve spent years doing is cleaning out my apparatus, the conduit apparatus within me.  I think someone had used it for relationships and acquiring stuff and influencing people according to what that someone wanted.  I think it had been developed well enough to do that, and that it was kind of like this person finding someone else’s fully loaded laptop and using it to pick up girls and pay off lobbyists.  It got kind of corroded and bent by being used for personal gain and attachments.  So it took awhile to get the junk and dirt out of it, retrieve some missing pieces, and get the thing up and running as it is intended to be used.

It takes a fair amount of effort for me to hear what I hear, and it often comes best as a reaction to reading or hearing what somebody else is saying.  I focus on the hearing part, including maintaining a good connection, and I tend to give shorter shrift to the translation and presentation part.  If I lose the connection, then the whole point is lost, so that’s why I put my energy there.

I have wished for a collaborator who would focus on the writing and translation part, but Gita has steered me away from that configuration — she thinks I should be doing the whole undertaking.  I struggle with the writing.  I think in parentheses and footnotes and gerunds — how to get those curlicued and nested thoughts into linear form, into short, declarative sentences, and into something that others can follow is a challenge for me.  And taking the time and having the patience to explain it all and not leave too much to be gleaned from between the lines — that’s a challenge for me, too.  Willy used to talk about how programmers get bored after figuring out the gist of a programming problem, and often are impatient with subsequent steps, including the debugging stage.  I’m probably like that.  Once I feel satisfied myself, I have to discipline myself to go further with the project after that — I either don’t hear a call to communicate it well or I override that call with some nonsense of my own (including residue from having a number of people tell me I don’t write well).

I feel somewhat better about the process of learning to communicate when I think of it as finding my voice.  That, in turn, leads me to recollecting the intentional misreading (by a friend of a friend) of the Latin phrase “cave canem” (beware of dog) into “cave caneam,” beware lest I sing.  (The friend of the friend is Debbie Roberts, who I think is a professor at Haverford College.)  I like the idea that somewhere inside of me I have a powerful voice, if I can only find it.  Again, to get back to where I started, I think we all do, it’s a matter of realizing our potential.

Church Latin translations

November 28, 2011

I am wondering whether the current contretemps over the new Vatican translation of the Catholic mass needs a wider context to be understood better.

My last paying job was to edit somebody’s translation, from the Latin, of medieval church court records in marriage cases for a book on medieval marriage.  And one of my frequent reactions was, “Yes, but is this English?  colloquial English? English that is not too distracting in its usage?”  And some of the time Charlie changed the wording and sometimes he decided to keep it the way he had translated it originally (which he attributed to his “stubbornness”).  I didn’t much care which way he decided, it was his book, I only felt obliged to bring up this stuff that I found jarring (we agreed pretty easily on the other stuff, the stuff that was less stylistic and more objectively in need of a little editing), and I think he enjoyed both using what I thought were anachronisms and uncommon phrasings, and my reaction to his usage.  But he also said since I was one of the twenty-five or so people who would possibly be interested in the book, he wanted to know what I thought, and he knew I came to it through classical Latin, not a Church context (much to his disappointment).  It seemed to be a friendly enough exchange, and his acknowledgments I think reflect that, even if they don’t accurately reflect the structure of my assistance to him (an issue which is unfortunately in keeping with my previous experience of our relationship, although I can thank Charlie for by his behavior leaving me open to other callings).

Anyway, this Latin mass translation situation indicates to me that Charlie’s translation style may not have been idiosyncratic to him, that there may be a proud tradition within certain circles of the Church of using what sound to outsiders like peculiar translation fashions (there’s a wonderful essay somewhere on fashion and idiosyncrasy in scholarship).  Maybe indeed a taste for these fashions is an important currency for belonging, within the Church, a kind factor for separating out groups of members within the larger group.  I don’t know.  But my experience is too close a parallel not to be relevant, I think, to understanding the current, wider issue of controversy regarding the mass translation.