Thursday, April 15, 2004

Buddy, Can You Spare Me a Quid?

It all seems to have started with a seemingly offhand observation by Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph that there was a mistaken construction of the Vocative Case in the Latin of Mel Gibson's the Passion of the Christ. It's one of those Psued's Moments, when a skilled conversationalist can crush the opposition like a bug, and a maneuver that's always popular, as evidenced by the number of the people that take delight in declaiming the plural of "octopus" as "octopi" - more on the molluscs later.

Anyway, in such spare time as God grants Boris Johnson, he also edits The Spectator magazine, which is Old Tory in all its works. As such, it was no real suprise to read in the Spectator some weeks ago a phillipic by one Henry Mount decrying the declining standards of the teaching of Classics (Latin and Greek languages and cultures) in the British educational system, and inferring that it was really no wonder they lost the Empire if this is what's being taught in the schools.

Battle has been joined this week by one James Morwood, dean of Wadham College, Oxford, who posits that the classics are doing just fine, thank you very much and, if Henry Mount reckons doing Latin in University now is so damned easy, he, Morwood, will forward a copy of this year's Latin exam to Henry Mount and mark the returned script himself, and we'll all see who's a wiseguy then.

How thrillingly primal. But it is in its next step that the Specator earns the undying admiration of An Spailpín and, by implication, all right-thinking citizens. Because the Spectator is now running a competition where the readers are encouraged to translate about three hundred words from any article in that particlular week's edition into either Latin or Ancient Greek, either in prose or in verse, and submit it to the editors. There will be a monthly winner who will recieve that most gentlemanly of prizes, a bot of champers, and the overall winner after a year will presented with a special cup.

How perfectly marvellous. I feel like cheering, I really do.

Still wondering about the octopus? The correct English plural of octopus is octopuses. The crack about octopi comes from a knowledge that the -us root in Latin pluralises to -i, thus allowing people to extrapolate and show off how clever they think they are.

Where octopi argument falls down, of course, is that while -us pluralises to -i in Latin, octopus is not Latin; it is Greek, and therefore pluralises as octopodes if you're playing that game. Sorry about that.