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Post Road Magazine #31

Recommendation: Amo, Amas, Amat and More, Eugene Erlich, paperback edition, 1987

Jana Martin

Mea Culpa. Something e pluribum. Pluribus? Latin phrases, at times, have scuttled around my head like newspapers on the platform in the gust of an oncoming train. In my case, when my life suddenly changed, here barreled back that train of word-fascination, and with it, all these phrases I'd once loved were littering my boots: Veni vidi what?

Due to midcentury conservative elitists like William F. Buckley, Latin was relegated to unsexy status. Superficially, it seemed the language of irritable patriarchs in togas, quick to quip, scathe in damning generalities, lob cleverness like heartless rocks into the bloody floor of the Coliseum. It did not seem compassionate (ergo poor Russell Crowe and his gang) or sensitive; worse, it was terribly politically incorrect. Yet it stamped our lexicon with a kind of granite permanence, trademarking certain sentiments to the point where we use the phrase without remembering the source. And in truth, there are some amazingly wise phrases in there; Shakespeare took note.

As a mutt culture, we're good at that. And forgetting language worsens an already raging case of historical amnesia. We say antebellum South and think: hoop skirts, parasols, and okay, slavery. But ante is Latin for before; bellum is Latin for war. In the 1970s, when my grandmother insisted on calling her refrigerator a Fridgidaire, she was observing that same principle. I'd say, Grandma, it's not a Fridgidaire, it's a Hotpoint. She'd say (leftovers in hand as she kicked shut the streamlined door), "Well, that's what we always call them." The royal we, which meant the aproned populace. Americans, in general.

Thus we are a fallen people. We have tumbled out of the grand hopper of our own vocabulary like illiterate strays, considering the mixed-up assembly that is English—part German, and then, post Norman invasion, part Latin too. Latin also came from old scholarly trappings: until not too long ago, it was taught in high schools. But now, those hoppy-sounding words we blurt out—what are they? Once, copyediting, I wrote n.b., short for nota bene. "What is that, Italian?" the ever-irritable editor wanted to know. "We don't have time for non sequiturs."

True story. Employment veritas. I'm not a linguist; the way I treat words has more to do with abstract expressionism than scholarship: drunk on them, I fling. My ardent fascination for language was rekindled of late when my life turned dramatic—and seemed like a grander episode of history, requiring grander ways to describe its terrible anti-grandness. The reactive twitch of a man's arm sent an object on a perfect arc smack against my body; a fragile domestic peace was irretrievably shattered. The die was cast. Weeks after, I and my ragtag battalion of dogs crossed the Ashokan—as in the reservoir, moving from a hamlet below it to a hamlet above it. Heading into an unknown fate, it did seem like I was crossing my own Rubicon, though I had to do some research to find out why. It was winter: I stood facing my new home, surrounded by the dogs, wrapped in a white blanket, railing with a raised fist at the ice on the front steps. Inside, once warm, I luxuriated in that old act of cracking open books, and found my reference, and was no longer lost. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon (a bold act with irreversible consequences), he apparently uttered a common Roman expression: alea iacta est—the die is cast. To link my new venture to that Caesarean tale was oddly elevating, like coming out of the woods and landing back in a library; and further, in the world of educated humans. True north is a black and white printed page.

What I am recommending here is part ephemeral, part material. To learn where those marvelous phrases come from, please get this book: Amo, Amas, Amat and More. It was written in the 1980s by Eugene Erlich, who, in his acknowledgments, quaintly thanks the person who taught him to use an "IBM Personal Computer." Yes, Buckley wrote the introduction, but forgive that fact. My paperback edition (I'll get to its source in a moment) has a simple cover: serif typeface (Garamond, I think) and the silhouetted head of Julius himself with a speech bubble. The book thus seems pitched as a kind of conversation-starter for young republicans trying to get laid. No matter. Yes, you can nearly hear Buckley's "I went to Yale and you didn't" flaunting sneer. "It is not plain to me why I was asked to write the introduction," he starts. But let's not let such prep-school piggishness ruin it for the rest of us anymore. Or we'd never have the joy of Sarah Palin Latin: "You Betchus!" (Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2008). The book is simply organized: a small pronunciation guide, a list of "personages" who apparently said the phrases first, like Ovid. The phrases are in alphabetical order, making it easy; the explanations are conversational, and it's good fun.

One fine day last summer, a visitor arrived at my new house. He'd made it a point to find me after some thirty-seven years. I'd once been infatuated with him, and spent a night in his teenage bedroom concocting a private mythology that shimmered all these years with a familiar but intangible light. And here he was: six feet and change unfolding from a car. Those same upslanted, unusually dark blue eyes, that quiet but ready smile. Decades had hewn him with a startling, pleasing symmetry. He had a book tucked under his arm. Old poems. Ergo hunk.

Soon I again strove for expressions that allowed for both time and astonishment, for sheer crazy luck and / or a larger intelligence: what marvelous fate brought him and took my breath away? Clearly, I needed a reference, though I thought I kept my conundrum well pocketed. Clearly not: a few weeks later, he gave me this book, a slightly hefty paperback, made the more accessible by its already used state. What's this? I said. For you, he said. Carpe diem.

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