Saturday, June 24, 2000

The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000


BORROWING between languages has an intriguing dimension to it. A language which is dead for all practical purposes, that is, it is not used as a means of communication any longer, remains alive through its words. But how, if it is not used any longer? This is the side-effect of the words it has given to other languages. This is particularly true in the case of Latin. So, linguistic kleptomania (John Ayto) is useful for English as it gives richness to the vocabulary and it keeps Latin alive through the naturalisation of Latin words and phrases.Since Latin is no longer a part of everyday speech and writing the user is not aware of any degree of the feeling of ‘foreignness’ while using naturalised Latin. Let’s look at some such expressions.

Anything created in response to a specific need is called ad hoc which in Latin means ‘towards this ,’ but is used in the extended sense of ‘for this purpose’.The implied contrast with things created in advance, anticipating such a need, has lent ad hoc derogatory connotations of hastily cobbled-together solutions to problems that should have been foreseen. In this mode, borrowing has led to neologisms with jocular derivatives like ad-hoc-ness and ad hoc-ery.

One’s former school, college or university is one’s alma mater. The Latin alma mater means literally ‘bountiful mother’. The adjective almus is related to the verb alere meaning nourish, from which come alimentary, alimony and alumnus. The Romans used alma mater as the title for various goddesses thought of as bestowing nature’s bounty on humanity. The place that gives intellectual nourishment thus became an alma mater.

  What could be the connection between ‘under the rose’ and ‘in secret’? The Latin expression sub rosa which carries a tale. Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence and secrecy, usually represented as a naked boy with a finger on his lips, was presented with a rose by Cupid as an inducement not to reveal the secrets of Venus’s amorous dalliances.This led to the rose as a symbol of silence and confidentiality. In Germany it became the practice to actually carve a rose into the ceiling of banquet halls, to warn guests not to let secrets revealed by wine go any further. A symbolic rose was also placed over confessionals.

Latin in camera means literally ‘in the room’ but its connotations are ‘behind closed doors, not in public. Camera is the ancestor of English chamber. In English it is used as a legal term to denote that proceedings are conducted privately in a judge’s chambers rather than in an open court. The term has also come to be used more widely for any proceedings held in closed session or in secrecy.


Sanskrit is, as reported recently, still spoken everyday in miniscule segments of our country. So, it is not a dead language. Yet, in terms of widespread usage, the relationship between Hindi and Sanskrit is quite similar to the one between English and Latin. If ever, Sanskrit does become a dead language, it will live on in the lexis of Hindi in the form of borrowings. Sanskrit has a total of twenty-two prefixes, out of which Hindi has naturalised twenty — ati, anu,ap, prati, nij and sam to name just a few in words like atirikt,anusaar, apmaan and sampatti.