aleator classicus

Reading at Random in Classical Literature

Cicero, Letters to his friends 9.22.3

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Sometimes a word is innocuous in one language but sounds a bit like a rude word in another. Cicero, who casually drops in Greek words quite frequently, discusses the problem in this letter. Here’s one of his examples, where bini ‘two at a time’ is perfectly respectable Latin, but sounds uncomfortably like the Greek βινεῖ ‘he has sex’.

cum loquimur ‘terni’, nihil flagitii dicimus; at, cum ‘bini’, obscenum est. ‘Graecis quidem,’ inquies. nihil est ergo in verbo, quoniam et ego Graece scio et tamen tibi dico ‘bini’, idque tu facis, quasi ego Graece, non Latine, dixerim.

When we say ‘three at a time’, we’re saying nothing disgraceful, but when we say ‘two at a time’, it’s obscene. ‘Well, to the Greeks it is,’ you say. Therefore there’s nothing in the word itself, since I know Greek but still use the word ‘two at a time’, and you take it as though I had spoken in Greek, not Latin.

Written by aleatorclassicus

August 17, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Cicero

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