Jack Ohman

May 22, 2013

To Jerry Brown, it's all Latin to him, deus volente...

Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

Gov. Jerry Brown, or should I say Rex Geraldus Brownii, noted that other day that everyone should take Latin "because it makes you smarter." Brown, as he often reminds us, is very smart, went to a Jesuit seminary, and often uses Latin quotations.

Caveat emptor, I say.

Now, I took two years of Latin. It's hard. At one point, I could play Scrabble in Latin. We called it "Scrabblus," which may or not be grammatically correct.

In fact, I took so much Latin that I can still hear Latin conjugations in my head at two in the morning. 

"I, isti, it. Imus, istis, erunt."

"Sum, es, est. Sumus, estis, sunt."

"Quis, quis, quid. Quem, qua, quod. Quo, qua, quod."

And so on. I know Sum, es, est, is I am, you are, he/she/it is. Or es. I don't know. It was 1976. Latin had pretty much died out by then. All I can tell you for a fact is that taking Latin in high school (Ludus,-I) (I think that's right), is that it confused me when I took Spanish, a Romance language with a lot of Latin roots, unlike the dog's breakfast that is the English language. You could use an English language sentence and have about six different scraps of various Romance and Anglo-Saxon languages going, and you'd really be more fluent in a lot of places than you think.

Gov. Brown, who really seems more inclined to be slinging Greek around more than Latin, particularly when it comes to budget and spending matters, is right, in a way. I suppose learning Latin would be useful, for example, if you found yourself in Pompeii in 79 AD and needed to get a taxi out of town, pronto (Spanish). Or, post haste (Latin). You know, chop chop. But the practical applications of Latin, I think (cogito), are limited. Even Spanish speakers are integrating more English into their language, to the consternation of their elders (el internet). 

For me, studying Latin was profoundly embarrassing in high school because every March 15, the Ides of March, we had to wear a toga to school (Ludus), and that was tres, muy malo. Like, muchas. And I had nightmares about it, because my toga sucked. It was a sheet with my dad's belt around it, and I was always afraid it would slip, and it invited, shall we say, comment in the locker room. Don't get me started on my laurel, which was actually leftover Christmas holly. And, my God, what shoes do you wear with a toga in 1976? I went with Adidas.

Die marke mit den drei reimen (the brand with the three stripes). I think. Mon dieu. 

When you study Latin, all it does is give you some bizarre cache that is only useful when you are trying to impress classics majors, which Brown is. I have an honors degree in history, and I guess you get a classics minor out of it (I need to check). But we studied the Canon (the Great Books, or a lot of them), and I can also tell you that the only thing that I remember about getting an honors degree is that I am aware that I read many great books that I can't tell you a thing about. I do remember that Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin, and don't get Brown started on the need to read James Joyce) was on a wine-dark sea. Or maybe he was drunk, probably because he had a Latin final that morning. Or a Greek final (Latin root), which is even harder.

Quick! Tell me about Nichomachean Ethics. As an Aristotle buff, Brown probably can, and has it memorized for when he deals with lobbyists for the influential Classics Industry.

And I am sure the governor knows words like agricola (farmer) and plumbeus (lead), two Latin words that just burped out now for this column. Latin study is also useful for incorrectly guessing what words mean when you have sixteen minutes left on the SAT Verbal Section, like "verdant," which has a Latin root of "viridis." 

Again, I think. Maybe it's sic semper tyrannis or primus inter pares. As a political cartoonist, I would note that I am first among the equals when dealing with tyrants.

I remember another elected official, Vice President Dan Quayle, once instructed our nation about the importance of studying Latin, so we could better understand Latin America.

As far as Latin and Jerry Brown is concerned, however, it's all sic transit gloria mundi to him - "So passes the glory of the world."

Latin is dead, and I would say to Jerry Brown in the words of the Romans, "contingit stercore."

Run it through the Google Latin translator.

S** what Happens.

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