FOR years now, Henry Beard, the founder of National Lampoon, has been pursuing a rollicking crusade to put Latin back in everyday life. As he explains, Latin is widely used by lawyers to cheat you, by doctors to scare you witless and by houseplant sellers to shift their wares. (See, under “Botanical Latin”, grandiflora, tormentosa, pendula, rugosa and sempervirens, all of which mean “leafless clump of dry brown twigs in one week flat”.) This book lets the homunculus (little guy) get his own back.(Phonetically (iirc): Nissi make-um kon-kube-weriss, fobistay weecherint--fyeieio).
And how. There are insults here for every occasion, from air rage (Heia, amice, utrum illae sunt sarcinae tuae, an modo Carthaginem despoliasti?, “Hey, pal, is that carry-on luggage or did you just sack Carthage?”) to computer trouble (Assume plicam damnatam, o tu moles muscaria muscerdarum, “Download the goddam file, you bug-ridden piece of shit”). But there are handy phrases too for bumper stickers (Malim praedari, “I'd rather be pillaging”) and invaded barbarians (Vos non victores, sed liberatores salutamus!, “We welcome you as liberators, not conquerors!”). All through the book, the morphing of empire-building Romans with Americans, chariots with Cadillacs, swords with guns and Julius Caesar with Jesus Christ (“What would Caesar do?”) is an endlessly diverting read.
First prize for devilish translating goes to “wet T-shirt contest” (certamen inter mammosas tunicis madefactis vestitas), closely followed by “sushi bar” (taberna Iaponica pulpamentorum incoctorum marinorum). The finest-resonance award goes to crapulentus sum (“I'm wasted!”). But since Latin is for lovers, special mention should go to a highly topical chat-up line containing the much-maligned future perfect: Nisi mecum concubueris, phobistae vicerint, “If you won't sleep with me, the terrorists will have won.”
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