Wednesday, November 17, 2010

quid hoc sis vult?

I've got a dictionary of foreign terms sitting in my toilet. It's a book with a list list of foreign terms which we (actually a very small subset of we, but never mind) use in English. Phrases like Dieu et mon Droit, which sometimes appears on the side of £1 coins; or quid pro quo, which doesn't and maybe should, but is Latin for something in return - by which I mean "something in return" not "[something] in return", nor even retsomethingurn (or gnihtemos), if you want to get cruciverbalist about it. I chose those examples because I had actually heard of them previous to owning this book, but it's full of phrases I haven't heard of and my plan was that subtly precipitating them mid-colloquy would make me look a great deal better educated than I am. And who doesn't want to look better than they are?

Of course just reading the entries was no good, because one Latin phrase looks much like another after a minute or two, and my memory is so shot it could practically be used to cull pheasants. So I found myself wishing for an index where I could go with an english word or phrase of my own imaginings and have it transformed into a highly rarefied bon mot, ready for insertion into my blogpost. In italics, of course, which is basically just a way of saying ooh look how clever I am, I used such a weird word it has to go on a slant. Or possibly it's just a way of telling your reader it's ok you don't have to understand that word, you're allowed to look it up. Anyway I found myself wishing for such an index and I turned to the back and à merveille! there was such an index. Well, of course fortuna favit fortibus and all that, so I wasn't entirely surprised, and a die my writing has a poco a poco become festooned with exotic phrases, like a prize cow shrouded in rosettes.

The downsides of this policy are, das ist Pech! a) it's an irritatingly unhelpful index and rarely supplies anything like the phrase you need; b) it's amazing how quickly you can slip into sounding like Boris Johnson; and c) surely the very definition of pretentious must be trawling the index of a book of foreign phrases trying to find something to make you sound classically educated. I mean Davus sum, non Oedipus, obviously, but I know that honor habet onus, so I felt obliged to write about it - to put my cards on the table, so to speak - so that we all understood each other.