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Do you have the Latin?

Jack Cannon, a colleague in Cincinnati, used to be fond of quoting an old British comic routine: “I wanted to work in the mines, but I didn’t have the Latin.”

For a long time, going to school meant learning Latin. You didn’t study your own language at school—you knew that—you studied Latin because it was the prestige language, the language of learning, law, and the church, and because it was hard.

Even in the United States within living memory, it was commonplace for students in public high schools on the college-prep track to take two or more years of Latin. I did myself, and was, like the Belgae, defeated by Julius Caesar.

The enduring impact of Latin on English can be seen in words imported intact from that language: We still have alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae, though I expect that fairly few alumni have mastered the distinctions.

And we find faux-Latin coinages irresistible: Literati, the literary intelligentsia, inspired glitterati, the ostentatiously fashionable.

But, English being English, the language naturalizes and transforms some of what it adopts. It is perfectly all right to use memorandums, referendums, and forums. Memoranda, referenda, and fora are more than a little precious. Data, like it or not, is either a plural noun or a singular collective noun, depending on context.

And, people being people, you also get coinages from writers whose knowledge of the classical languages doesn’t extend beyond changing us to i to form plurals. That’s why you see octopi, though octopus comes from a Greek word rather than a Latin one, with the plural form octopodes.* If you’ve got more than one, you have octopuses.

I know that some of you are going to yearn for a Rule to guide you thorough this thicket, and, as always, I’m pleased to provide one:

English is English, except when it’s not.

I’ve said before that English is a magpie language, forever picking up shiny things. Some borrowings keep their original forms, but many more are transformed. There’s no rule. You have to learn the distinctions, case by case, which is why investing in a couple of good dictionaries is a smart move.


*Insist on using octopodes, and you have a fair chance of getting a star on the Pedants’ Walk of Fame.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:19 AM | | Comments (34)


Great article, but you gotta get that quote right. It's from Beyond the Fringe, and the sketch is by Peter Cook: "I could've been a judge, but I didn't have the Latin. I didn't have the Latin for the judgin' -- so I become a miner instead."

In fact, the sketch (by Peter Cook) was about a man who wanted to be a judge, but didn't have sufficient latin to pass the rigorous judging exam, so became a coalminer instead:

Corrections duly noted.

But you may forgive me for preferring Jack's version, at least for the purposes of this post.

I wonder if the opening quote is a false remembering of Peter Cook's "Sitting on a Bench" routine from "Beyond the Fringe" in the 1960s.

"Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin, never had the Latin for the judging, I just never had sufficient of it to get through the rigorous judging exams. They're noted for their rigour. People come out saying, "My God, what a rigorous exam"--and so I became a miner instead. A coal miner. I managed to get through the mining exams--they're not rigorous, they only ask one question, they say, "Who are you", and I got 75 per cent on that."

There are several versions of this on the mighty interweb. This version with it's repetition of "rigour" rings a bell.

You know, if within an hour, your blog audience produces three accurate identifications (and transcripts, even) of Peter Cook and Beyond the Fringe, you must be doing something right.

I'm plainly drawing the right class of people.

I'm not sure that print dictionaries are needed anymore. So really, not much monetary investment is required when you have and

I've written about this before (,, and it always surprises me that people will insist that the "correct" plural for a foreign borrowing is whatever its form is in the source language. As if the word had come into English with all its declensional baggage intact.

Or even pseudo-borrowing; if you want to get a pedant wound up, start a discussion about what the plural is of the Toyota Prius.

However, I do note that this seems to be insisted upon only for classical languages; you don't see people argue much about the plural of a word borrowed from Chinese, say, or a Native American word, or even Spanish.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." --James Davis Nicoll

(T-shirts, mugs, etc. available here. I'm not affiliated with James or his CafePress store; just thought some folks here might be interested.)

"English is English, except when it’s not."

Advice like this helps explain how Alexander conquered Asia Minor.

I took 2 years of Latin--I was sadly defeated by much of it, but as I look back, I'm am so grateful for learning about correct use of pronouns--I don't think any of my English teachers mentioned indirect objects, but I learned about them in Latin. Thank you, Miss Pride.

I remember indirect objects from Jr. High diagramming.

David Craig (on facebook) said: "I'm thinking spandeges, on the model of rex", in response to John Lawler's citation of spandices as the "correct" plural of spandex. David, don't you mean "on the model of bandex (pace spelling--perhaps it should be bandax)"?

I heard a caller on NPR a week or so ago identify himself as "an alumni" of a local university. Thank goodness it wasn't one I am associated with.

The Latin thing is no different from the way we treat other foreign words that we've taken on in English. When was the last time you ate a spaghetto? I do bridle, however, when someone uses gourmand (to eat like a pig) when they mean gourmet (to eat and appreciate fine food). The genius of the language includes its ability to subsume countless foreign words and make them a part of the whole.

The relevant languages for borrowing plurals are Latin, Greek, Hebrew (pretty much only cherubim and seraphim, but I have been known to say sedarim), and Italian. However, most Italian nouns now have ordinary English plurals (we no longer hear of banditti instead of bandits) or are mass nouns (the various pasta shapes). Only musical terms survive, and few of them: concerti, perhaps, but not soli.

If you'll permit me an observation, I think that the reason some of the people who concern themselves with language love Latin is that Latin is difficult but has rules, and power adheres to those who remember the rules. (If you need a Brit comedy reference for this, kindly refer to the graffiti scene in Life of Brian.)

English is also difficult, but does not have rules to the degree that Latin does, and indeed even those rules are not rigorously enforced. It is, of course, much easier to enforce rules with a dead language, as regular, ongoing usage tends to bring about change. And change, as we all know, is the mortal enemy of pedantry.

If you'll permit a second observation, I would suggest to John Cowan that musical terms would survive more strongly in their pure Italianate form if editors in the popular press didn't keep forbidding music reviewers from using them, on the argument that they constitute "jargon."

Italian musical terms do survive - oddly enough in music. Conductors routinely tell the orchestera "bar 24" at the "tutti," or refer to the "ripieno." It all depends on where you are and what you pay attention to.And "soli" is everywhere in evidence in manuscripts and scores in Baroque and 18th-century music. Also, I like "octopodes." Is that anything like "antipodes?"

Concerti sounds to my ear like the very definition of pedant in full flow.

I am now earnestly searching for a way to work "octopodes" and "declensional baggage" into conversation.

It is indeed, Patricia. The octopus is, of course, all in favour of feet, to the point of having what you might feel is an excess of them. In the antipodes they are antagonistic to feet. The kangaroo, for instance, uses only the two of them, keeping the others in its pocket.

My point was that "soli" is no longer in live use: we do not hear that Ringo performed two drum soli on such-and-such a Beatles album.

@ Melissa Jane: "concerti" is regularly used of various groups of concertos (also used), esp. by the same composer. This is standard in classical music.

@ John Cowan "Soli" is pretty regularly seen and even used of solo passages & esp. solo voices in a classical piece (not just Italian). True, it would never be used in the context or way you cite. Mr. J.D. Considine: wicked editors! They should cease their degradation.

Rules in English: how about the rule to shift the accent to the 2nd syllable in verb forms (protest, to protest), which has not been used in new formations for a while.

But one wonders what Latin was like on the street or in the boonies (cf. Spanish & French & Italian) -- our Latin grammar was from the grammarians, who wanted their elite form of the language.

"I'm plainly drawing the right class of people."

Arrived as soon as I could.

Mike- "Or even pseudo-borrowing; if you want to get a pedant wound up, start a discussion about what the plural is of the Toyota Prius."

If my experience is any guide, it should be either Pious or Priaprism.

As far as English having fewer rules than Latin: it's got just as many (if not more). The difference is that English is a living language, so the rules are subject to change.

City Redux, the name of the oldest a capella group at Johns Hopkins is The Octopodes. I'm afraid you are on your own with "declensional baggage," however.


Just curious. That oldest a capella group at John Hopkins, "The Octopodes" clearly has a leg, or two....... or eight, up on the nearest competition, but was (or is) this a four-part harmony ensemble/ quartet, w/ eight legs between them?

I would offer that an equally cool name for an a capella group could be the Four Octaves, which immediately connotes musicality, and vocal range.

(Rumor has it that the famed pop group, The Four Season---those 'Jersey Boys'---early on, were toying w/ that aforementioned Four Octaves moniker, but just had to bring in those instruments, drop the a capella bit, and of course, the rest is history. And a great spin-off broadway play.HA!)

@Lawrence. Maybe Prius wouldn't need a plural variant at all. Kind of like the word "moose", which covers both singular and plural forms of the gigantic antlered beastie?

Example: "Did you see those twelve nifty new 2011 Prius out on the dealer lot, yesterday? No, but I DID catch a gander of that crazed rogue moose."

I did like your inventive pluralism, "Priaprism, although I'm not quite sure you meant to add the second "r", which would then translate to Priapism, a whole other inference, entirely. (I do seem to recall a Chevy product of not-too-ancient-vintage called the Geo Prizm, however.)

"Priapism' would clearly relate more to discussions regarding various ED remedies, or more directly to ancient Greek mythology and those horny satyrs and the like. Hardly (no pun intended HA!) to the very in-demand 'green' hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius.

Full marks for you effort, nonetheless.


P.S.: ----On a personal note, I currently drive a 2004 model Toyota Sienna van, which will NOT be venturing out on the highways-and-byways of LA over this coming weekend, since 10 miles of one of our major motoring arteries, the 405 San Diego FWY, will be totally closed off to thru traffic from midnight tonight, to around 6:00AM Monday morning as CalTrans demolishes and removes a lateral half of the concrete-and-steel Mulholland Bridge at Sepulveda Pass, to facilitate the eventual widening of the freeway. (UGH!)

The local media is calling it "Carmageddon", and is warning all Angelenos to stay close to home, and venture no where in the vicinity of 'ground zero'.

Oh the joys of living in the LA's fast-lane.

I'll be watching British Open golf from Sandwich, England, and hopefully the U.S. women's soccer team's World Cup final match against Japan on Sunday, staying clear of the inevitable traffic snarls.

You go gals!

U.S. A. all the way!

Alex, I'm with you all the way on our women in the finals on Sunday.

I have never heard the Octopodes sing in the flesh, but if you do a search on Hopkins Octopodes there are several clips available online. They are clearly a coed group (might have been all-male originally, as JHU was all-male until the 70s). I counted 16 people on stage in one clip from last year, which makes for 32 legs on stage.

Dear me, Alex, do LAers not have legs?


Thanks for your online leg count of the John Hopkins U. "Octopodes" troupe. Thirty two legs, indeed. Hardly an a capella quartet. In fact, more like a full-blown glee club, I'd imagine. (And I thought counting a flock of birds on the fly was tough. HA!)

Hope the U.S. Women's soccer squad can pull off a repeat of their 1999 win here at the Rose Bowl, tomorrow. I'm sure Mia Hamm and Brandee Chastane will be glued to their TVs, if not taking in the final, in person.

What a super boost for young American gals who might be looking at soccer as a personal pursuit. The long-retired Mia Hamm still inspires these kids; some who weren't even born when she was dazzling the fans on the soccer pitch in her glory days.

Go U.S. of A.!

@Picky, old lad. I gather from your last brief post that you are taking a wee swipe (below the belt HA!) at us Los Angelenos' (alleged) over-reliance on our automobiles, and other sundry modes of motorized transport, as opposed to you sporty Brits, and continental Euros, in general, who maintain the long, tried-and-true tradition of just plain walking, or bicycling, to get where you want to go?

Unfortunately, the greater metro LA region is a spread out conglomerate of urban/ suburban neighborhoods, interconnected by a vast maze of serpentine freeways. So from a purely pragmatic standpoint, walking is ofttimes not a viable option.

Let's face it, the American car culture, and its ethos is basically firmly rooted in Southern California-----the automobile, for many, being almost a mobile extension of one's home.

Denizens of LA do, indeed, have legs, and as the great Southern rock band, ZZ Top, would say, " (We) know how to use them."

But for any distant destinations the car is generally the expedient mode of choice. Of course, our Metro, and other above-ground means of public transport are viable, and economical options. Some walking most definitely required.


P.S.: ---Delighted to report that all the media negative pre-hype re/ the anticipated traffic snarls due to the aforementioned 'Carmageddon event over this weekend here in LA has apparently scared folks off our major freeways, which by midday today are reported to be wide open, w/ most folks adjusting smoothly to the two-day 'inconvenience'. However we still have another day to go.


> Maybe Prius wouldn't need a plural variant at all. Kind of like the word "moose" ...

I'm with you. I think that's a perfect usage. The plural of Prius should be Prius.

If "Prius" were fourth declension its plural would be spelled the same but pronounced with a long "u", as "Prioos".

Paul (A.),

Hmm..... so there apparently was some method in my (albeit unwitting) 'mooseiness', w/ the double "oo"s plurality. HA!

"Prioos", indeed.


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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