Saturday, July 27, 2002

Grandparent languages

LATIN may well be classified as a dead language because it is no longer used for everyday communication, but it is alive and kicking in certain ways. Up to the eighteenth century, one was not a scholar if one didnít know Latin and even till the middle of the nineteenth century, most languages were taught through the methods of Latin grammar. Long-term interaction like this was bound to leave traces and, today, Latin remains alive through its extensive vocabulary used in fields such as medicine, science, law and the many words English has borrowed and modified. Incidentally, Latin is still the official language of the Vatican.

At times, a single Latin expression can express all that may have needed more English words. "You scratch my back and Iíll scratch yours" may not sound very dignified when used by a head of state, so the head may say quid pro quo and feel satisfied. Quid means what, pro, for and quo, what; the general gist being "something for something." In the mid-sixteenth century, apothecaries employed quid pro quo to denote a medical substance that was substituted for another. Thus, the notion of exchange stuck, leading to the present sense of one favour given in exchange for another.

Thank you computers!
July 6, 2002
Computer-created words
June 22, 2002
Fiddling with words, again!
June 8, 2002
Fiddling with words
May 25, 2002
May 11, 2002
Words in twos
April 27, 2002
April 13, 2002
March 16, 2002
And the romance goes on...
March 2, 2002
Less etymology, more romance
February 16, 2002
Random tales"
February 2, 2002

A person who remembers to return a favour is, indeed, a rara avis, a rare bird, literally speaking. Juvenal, the Roman satirist, wrote: "Rara avis in terries nigroque simillima cygno," meaning a rare bird on this earth, like nothing so much as a black swan. He created a metaphor that has survived for nearly two millennia! Today, it may occasionally be used in its English translation as a rare bird but rara avis is still used for someone or something remarkable and unusual.

A wonderful year is not rara avis but annus mirabilis. Annus means year and mirabilis, wondrous. Originally, the term was used for the year 1588, during which a series of disasters was predicted. But, when John Dryden used it as the title of a poem describing events, both good and bad, the meaning of annus mirabilis settled down as a year of wondrous happenings. The public fancy soon created another word for happenings unhappy: annus horribilis!

Happy or unhappy, it is difficult to keep news sub rosa with so many reporters on the prowl. Sub rosa? Literally meaning "under the rose," it is used in the sense of "in secret, strict confidence." Now what has a rose to do with secrecy? The legend goes that Harpocrates, Greek god of silence and secrecy, was presented with a rose by the Cupid and induced not to reveal the secrets of Venusís amorous dalliances.


Sanskrit, by no means a dead language, enjoys the same respect and authority that Latin enjoys in the West. Hindi also plays the same role in relation to Sanskrit that English plays for Latin. In Hindi, many words from Sanskrit are in use even when words with the same meaning are in existence. Whether for beauty or accuracy of expression, the fact remains that Sanskrit words are quite common in Hindi. For example, afsar from Persian is used but so is adhikari from Sanskrit, the same goes for bimar and rogi, agar and yadi.

This feature was published on July 20, 2002