Red Booth Notes: Where Latin Finds Us
Does that seem far-fetched?
Consider how we mark each day, with hours a.m. and p.m.
We seldom stop to think about it, but these abbreviations stand for ante meridiem (before noon) and post meridiem (after noon).
We encounter Latin in still other ways.
Step inside a bookshop, and you’re likely to see the words ex libris (from the library of). This, in turn, leads us to provenance, a wonderful French word that speaks of where an older book comes from, and who once owned it. Stories upon stories lie there.
Latin is a rich, sonorous language. It guides our worship, as in Pater noster, the words that open The Lord’s Prayer. It describes our songs—as in cantible, an Italian rendering of the Latin word cantabilis (worthy to be sung).
For millennia, the words anno domini shaped our perception of history. We know them better by the abbreviation A.D., “in the year of our Lord,” a phrase found in many places—including one of our most treasured documents, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It begins: “Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States…”
Latin gilds the commonplace too. Most of us have heard the phrase et cetera, or seen its abbreviation, etc. It means “and other things,” or, “and so forth.” A kindred phrase is id est, which we know better by the letters, i.e., or, “that is.” Less known, but still used often, is the phrase exempli gratia, or, e.g., translated as “for example.”
Friends of the space program are fond of the phrase ad astra (to the stars). Watchers of the night sky know the words aurora borealis well, for they refer to the beauty of the “northern lights.”
Latin hallows courage. Those who’ve served in the Marines know the phrase semper fidelis, or semper fi. It means “always faithful.” And when honor those who’ve gone before, we use the phrase, in memoriam, or “in memory of.”
Latin also leads to lighthearted things and laughter. The behavior of those given to spontaneity or improvisation is often described as ad hoc, or, “of this,” which means that they’ve more or less made something up on the spot. Those who don’t know quite when to stop speaking are said to go on ad infinitum, or, “endlessly.”
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Sometimes, Latin finds us when we least expect it, and lends our lives a renewed sense of worth and meaning. I discovered this when serving as the lead script and historical consultant for the film, Amazing Grace. For several months, I worked closely with its screenwriter, Steven Knight. He asked all manner of questions, about every facet of William Wilberforce’s life and times.
When I saw some of the first cuts of the film, I discovered that Steven had done me the high honor of weaving some elements of my Wilberforce biography into the film. A phrase from Francis Bacon, which I’d discovered Wilberforce knew well in Latin, was one of these: Illi mors gravis incubat, qui notus nimis omnibus, ignotus moritur sibi. This phrase was featured (in English) in the scene where Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) speaks early one morning with his butler (Jeremy Swift). Wilberforce, wondering aloud about his sense of purpose in life, hears this unexpected rejoinder from his butler: “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to others, too little known to himself.”
At this Wilberforce turns to his friend with a look of incredulity. “Francis Bacon,” the butler continues, by way of explanation. “I don’t just dust your books, Sir.”
The first time I saw this scene, and heard the butler invoke Bacon, I nearly leapt out of my chair at the 20th Century Fox studios in Hollywood. I was bowled over at Steven’s subtle and adept usage of a phrase that speaks to some of life’s biggest questions. It was given winsomely, disarmingly, through the use of humor. Filmgoers were given a deeply human moment, resonant on so many levels—not least in the way it touched so universally on the question of faith.
I got to visit with Ioan Gruffudd and Jeremy Swift during the several events I attended in connection with Amazing Grace—moments on set, and later, premieres in New York and London. Telling Jeremy Swift how much I appreciated and enjoyed his performance was a privilege, and he beamed his good pleasure when I told him so.
“It’s easy when you have such a fine script to work with,” he said.
I could only agree.
Now that I look back on it all, I’m reminded anew of how Latin still finds us, though few today are fluent in its ancient rhythms and meaning. It’s worth a second look. Unexpected riches lie there.