Special Sub-Topic: Classical MISquotes
|"Veni vidi vici" is pronounced various ways in English, but how would Caesar have actually said it?|
Waynee, Weedee, Weekee. The confusion comes from the fact that Latin pronunciation changed over time. In Caesar's day, V's were pronounced like W's, and C's were always pronounced hard, like K's. Later on, in Church Latin, V's were pronounced like our V's and C's were pronounced like CH's. Both are acceptable pronunciations for Latin as long as you understand the time frames involved. But as for the answer to this question, as one author put it, it should sound like Caesar conquered Hawaii!
|"Et tu, Brute" is not only the wrong meaning for Caesar's dying words, but the wrong language! What language did Caesar really use?|
Greek. The Latin "Et tu, Brute?" translates as "Even you, Brutus?" But, according to the historian Suetonius, Caesar spoke his dying words in Greek: "kai su, teknon?" It means, "Even you, child?" Another source has "kai su ei ekeinon, o pai?" or "Even you are one of them, child?" Neither one is quite a direct translation of "Et tu, Brute"! I suspect our phrase comes from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, where Caesar's dying words are, indeed, "Et tu, Brute."
|Archimedes is reported to have jumped out of a bath yelling "Eureka! Eureka!" Alas, in the transition between Greek and English, "Eureka" lost a consonant! The first letter of "Eureka" should really be H (rough breathing and spiritus asper)?|
y. The reason "heureka" showed up in English sans H is probably due to the nature of the Greek alphabet. There is no letter for "h." Instead, h's are indicated by a small diacritical mark over initial vowels or diphthongs. This "rough breathing" mark looks like an apostrophe or a small c. To complicate matters, there is also a "smooth breathing," which simply means "no h." It looks like the rough breathing mark, only backwards. Naturally, it would be very easy to overlook or confuse the two. Additionally, if words are written in capital letters, both the smooth and rough breathing marks can be omitted. Early on, the word shows up in English both as "heureka" and "eureka," but the H-less form gradually took over.
|"Beware of the Greeks bringing gifts" comes from Vergil's Aeneid: "timeo Danaos et dona ferentis." But is this really the exact translation?|
No. The literal translation would be "I fear (timeo) the Greeks (Danaos) even (et) bringing (ferentis) gifts (dona). If Laocoon, the priest of Neptune who speaks this line, really wanted to say "beware of the Greeks bringing gifts," he would have said "cavete Danaos dona ferentis." By the way, this comes from Book 2, line 49.
|In the British Imperial War Museum, there is a quote from Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Which work does this quote come from?|
Plato probably didn't write it. This question came up a few years ago on the major classics e-mail discussion list, Classics-L. One op-ed writer was wishing to include this quote in one of his pieces and wanted a more precise reference. Not even the collected wisdom of over a hundred classicists could completely figure this one out. What is certain is that the quotation can be securely attributed to Santayana: "Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war." As to whether Plato ever wrote it, it is difficult to prove a negative, but a computer search of "polemou" (war, in Greek) in all of Plato's works did not produce any quotation which could remotely be translated as "Only the dead have seen the end of war."
|"Count no one happy until he is dead," or some variation thereof, is another popular quote. Who said it?|
All of these (Sophocles, Herodotus, Solon). The chorus at the end of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyranus says, "Never say a man is happy / until he's crossed life's boundary free from pain" (trans. Woodruff). They are referring, of course, to Oedipus, whose brilliant intelligence and leadership could not keep him from a personal tragedy outside of his control. Herodotus' History has the same sentiment: "If....[someone] ends his life well, then he is the one whom you seek, the one worthy to be called fortunate. But refrain from calling him fortunate before he dies" (trans. Godley). The speaker is the Athenian statesman Solon, to the Lydian king Croesus. Croesus thinks he is the most fortunate person in the world, and wants Solon to say so, but the people who Solon names as being the most fortunate are all obscure Athenians, and all dead. Croesus becomes very angry at this, and so Solon explains, using that quote. And indeed, later in Croesus' life, his fortunes reverse. His only able-bodied son is killed in a hunting accident, and Croesus loses his kingdom, and nearly loses his life, in a war. This sentiment is very common in Greek literature, but also very true in life.
|"The hoi polloi" -- which of these words is redundant?|
the & hoi. In Greek, "hoi" is one form of the definite article, which would translate into English as "the." So, "the hoi polloi" sounds to my ear like "the the polloi"! "Polloi" literally means "many," but when used to describe "the people," it had a negative connotation-- the unwashed masses, as it were.
|Is "seize the day" an accurate translation of "carpe diem"?|
Yes. If one wanted to take into account a more subtle meaning of "carpe," it would be "harvest," but since "carpe" can have a meaning something along the lines of "grab," "seize the day" is good enough for me.
|"It's Greek to me" is often attributed to Shakespeare. But did it really come from an honest-to-goodness Latin source?|
Yes. The earliest attribution of the phrase is a Medieval Latin proverb, "Graecum est; non potest legi" "It is Greek, it cannot be read." Of course, Shakespeare did put the words in the mouth of Servilius Casca in Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II: "Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me." Actually, almost the same phrase was used the year before by Thomas Dekker: "I'll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue. Why, then it's Greek to him."
|One scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian features the hapless Brian attempting to write some graffiti in Latin when a Roman centurion walks up and starts correcting Brian's grammar. What had Brian been writing?|
Romanes Eunt Domus. "Romani domum ite," silly! Poor Brian. From my days as a beginning Latin student I certainly know how this feels. But really, please, take this whole quiz in fun. These phrases are so widespread that I would never suggest changing them to get "closer" to the original meaning. I hope you have enjoyed learning about the origins of these quotations!
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