A Few Latin and Greek Terms I
Bill Long 3/31/08
Though our language is shaped by many other languages, and is becoming even more so as the fruits of our world conquest are reflected in culinary, literary, geographically-oriented and other terms "borrowed" from other languages, our roots are still in Greece and Rome. To that end, I will begin this set of word essays with additional words either derived from Greek or Latin or Latin words themselves that crop up occasionally in English. Let's begin with two practical and useful terms that aren't used by anyone: Momus and mammothrept.
On Momus and Mammothrept
I have already written an essay on Momus and don't need to repeat what I said there. Additional information is useful, however. Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells us that Nyx, "though she lay with none, bare Momos (Blame) and painful Oizys (Misery), and the Hesperides....Also she bare the Moirai (Fates) and the ruthless avenging Keres (Death-Fates)," lines 214ff. Momus, the Latinized spelling of the name, was known as the god of raillery, censure or ridicule and always seemed to find fault with the ways of the Olympian divinities. In the famous story told in Aesop's Fables 518, Momus judged various creations by Zeus (humanity), Poseidon (a bull) and Athena (a house) deficient. Zeus was criticized for not making a human with a window into his heart so that his neighbor could see what he was planning. This story led to two English phrases: the "Momus-window" or "Momus-lattice" (the latter is poetic phrase used by Byron in these lines: "Were Momus' lattice in your breasts,/ My soul might brook to open it more widely/ Than theirs") and someone who is a "daughter of Momus," a woman given to facetiousness, sarcasm or ridicule. You wonder if in our gender-affirming times today--right--we might also have "sons of Momus..." The OED only has one other "Momus-related" word, Momusite (a person habitually grumbling or finding fault), but I think the opportunities for creating other such words are Legion.
I ran across mammothrept when I was reading the Century Dictionary. The word is rare indeed, appearing only in St. Augustine (4th-5th centuries) and some 15th century sources, and is derived from the two Greek words meaning "grandmother" (mamme) and "to bring up" (threptos, from trephein). A mammothrept is, literally, someone brought up by his grandmother, but this means, figuratively, a spoilt child or one of immature judgment. Though the OED says the word is now archaic, I can think of nothing better than to bring back this word to describe the pampered children of us baby-boomers, many of whom believe that the whole world should be given to them wrapped in a nice package. Ben Jonson had the line, "O, you are a mere mammothrept in judgment.' And, theologically speaking, an author wrote, "And for we are the Mammothrepts of Sinne,/ Cross us with Christ to weane our joys therein..." Thus, Momus and mammothrept have immediate utility in our world--the first to describe unfair or harsh critics, the second to describe spoilt brats. Already the wheels must be turning..
When I first ran across lustrum, I thought it must have something to do with "washing," since the Latin verb luere, to wash, probably stood behind it. But, when I learned that its meaning today is a "period of five years," I was nonplussed. What does washing have to do with a period of five years? Here is the story, told in the article under lustrum in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Indeed, at first, the lustrum was a washing, a purification by sacrifice. In the regal period (before 509 BCE), as Livy tells us (iv.44), the King Servius Tullius celebrated the first lustrum. About this 566 BCE celebration, Livy has this to say (my own translation):
"After the census was finished he led them out, so that all the Roman citizens would be present at first light in the fields. There he purified the army with swine, sheep and bull (the great Latin word is suovetaurilibus); and this foundation was called the 'lustrum,' and this is done at the conclusion of the census."
The census was done every five years, and in the Republic the ceremony was first performed by the consuls. When the state expanded, it was found necessary to establish the censorship around 440 BCE, and the duty to perform the lustrum fell to them. The article goes into more detail about the actual celebration of the lustrum, but I will spare you those here. Suffice it to say that something that was associated with the ritual of purification (its quinquennial character) became the sole meaning of the word in Imperial times.
Let's conclude this essay with reference to these two Latin words, translated "where are"? The words are a literary shorthand beginning in Medieval Latin texts for the question "ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?" or "Where are those who were before us?" They are used to signal the beginning of reflection on the mortality and fleeting character of human life. Though many of the authors were Christian, the philosophy behind the "Ubi sunt" literature is best summed up in these words:
"Trust not at all in this world, but in the next world; the one mortal event certain for men is death; embark upon no ambitious worldly action, covet nothing that the world can give you, busy yourself with nothing in this world except spiritual preparation for heaven."
However, this spirit seeped into medieval Christian poetry and even is captured in the lines of some more modern hymns:
"Oh where are kings and empires now
Of old, that went and came?
But Lord, Thy Church is praying yet,
A thousand years the same."
According to this web site, these words from this 1839 hymn (words by Arthur C. Coxe), were quoted by President Woolsey of Yale University to the 1873 general conference of the Evangelical Alliance in NYC while speaking of the world's skeptical attitude towards prayer. As the site says, "The applause was thunderous..." Maybe all the more reason for celebrating the original meaning of the "Ubi sunt" verses..