Chapter VII. – Blundering Use of Latin, Etc., pp.32-34.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

OF all the blunders which people fall into from this fondness for words that convey an impression of scholarship, there are none that call for less compassion than blunders in the use of Latin, French, or other unassimilated words in the place of good plain English. I remember a divinity student, at a written examination, finding himself left with too little time to finish a particular exercise, breaking off abruptly with a dash of the pen and the highly classical explanation, 

   non tempus! [no time!] 

An equally learned speaker at a public meeting concluded his appeal by the remarkable warning – 

   “Remember, the eyes of the vox populi [voice of the people] are upon you!” 

A story is told of a certain Provost of Glasgow who might have thanked God, like Coleridge, that he had never learned French, but who would have been wise, if, like Coleridge, he had made no attempt to speak it. This civic dignitary, when he visited Paris, was much pleased with the appearance of the gardens, squares, and fountains, and often heard the expression used – 

   “What a fine effect that jet d’eau [water jet] gives!” 

On his return, he was loud in his praise of Paris, and wished as far as possible to Parisianize Glasgow. On one occasion he said of St Enoch Square, 

   “Grand square, grand square, it needs nothing to mak’ it perfect but a Jack-daw in the middle o’ it.” 

When the Queen visited Dundee in 1844, the Town Council provided a piece of red cloth for her Majesty to walk upon in passing from the steamer to the Royal carriage. At a subsequent meeting, a discussion arose as to what should be done with the cloth, when a learned Councillor proposed to preserve it 

   “as a momento mori [reminder of death] of the Royal visit.” 

A story is told of two shoemakers, whose shops faced each other from opposite sides of the street, and who carried on a keen competition, advertising in their windows all the newest fashions of boots and shoes. One of them had a son at college, who provided his father with the motto 

   “MENS CONSCIA RECTI [Mind Conscious of Integrity],” 

which was immediately displayed in the window. The rival bootmaker saw it. He had never heard of any boots of that name before, but he was not to be outdone. Next day, accordingly, there flamed in his window the announcement 

   “MEN’S and Women’s CONSCIA RECTI [Conscious of Integrity].” 

There is an old story of the rector of a certain parish going to law with his parishioners about paving the church. In the course of the proceedings he quoted the authority of St Peter, 

   “Paveant illi, non paveam ego [Let them be affrighted, do not let me be dismayed],” 

which he translated, 

   “They are to pave the church and not I.” 

This was allowed to be good law by the judge, who was also an ecclesiastic, and the rector gained his cause. 

Everybody has heard of the schoolboy who translated 

   “Cæsar transivit Alpes summa diligentia [Caesar crossed the Alps with the greatest exactness]” – 

   “Cæsar crossed the Alps on the top of a diligence!” 

But what are we to think of the following:- 

Dr Johnson, while compiling his dictionary, sent a note to the Gentleman’s Magazine to inquire the etymology of the word Curmudgeon. Having obtained the desired information, he thus recorded in his work his obligation to an anonymous writer: 

   “CURMUDGEON, s. vicious way of pronouncing CŒUR MÉCHANT [Wicked Heart], An unknown correspondent.” 

Ash copied the word into his dictionary in the following manner:- 

   “CURMUDGEON, from the French cœur, ‘unknown,’ and méchant, ‘correspondent.’ ” 

D’Israeli, the elder, cites some very odd cases of blundering translations. He speaks of one French writer who translates the Latin title of a treatise of Philo Judæus 

   Omnis bonus liber est,  

   “Every good man is a free man,” 


   Tout livre est bon [Any book is good]. 

Jortin said it was well for the author that he did not live within reach of the Inquisition, which might have taken this as a reflection on the Index Expurgatorius

From the Valeriana it appears that it was the opinion of Father Sirmond, that St Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins were all created out of a blunder. In some ancient MS. they found St Ursula et Undecimilla, V.M., meaning St Ursula and Undecimilla Virgin Martyrs; imagining that Undecimilla with the V. and M. which followed was an abbreviation for Undecemmillia Martyrum Virginum, made out of two virgins the whole eleven thousand

Cibber’s play of 

   “Love’s last Shift,” 

was entitled  

   “La Dernière Chemise de l’amour [Last Shirt of Love].” 

A French writer of Congreve’s life has taken his mourning for a morning bride, and translated it 

   “L’espouse du Matin [The Morning Wife].” 

One of the funniest blunders of this kind on record is that made by a French writer who compiled a catalogue of Works on Natural History, in which he inserted the well-known 

   “Wedgeworth’s Essay on Irish Bulls.” 

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