Anyone who has spent any serious time studying Latin has probably felt the need for something more powerful than Tylenol™ to quiet the throbbing in his or her head. In the absence of Oxycontin™, humor has long been a good substitute for mitigating the effects of “bonus, bona, bonum, boni, bonæ, boni…”
Here a random collection of humorous tidbits regarding the vagaries of classical Latin (and other languages). Macaronics are, properly, text which uses multiple languages, and often bilingual puns.
While not macaronics proper, it’s still a great Latin joke: It reads (liberally translated), “If you can read this bumper sticker, you’re well-educated and TOO DAMN CLOSE!”
What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo—
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:—
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!
–Alfred Dennis Godley
The above poem pokes fun at the difficulty of Latin declensions, and inflects the words “motor” and “bus” as though they were classical Latin nouns (which, in a certain sense, they are.)
Latin verbs are memorized with their principal parts:
- 1st person singular, present indicative
- 1st person singular, perfect indicative
- and past participle.
Most Latin verbs are regular:
amo, amare, amavi, amatus (to love)
salto, saltare, saltavi, saltatus (to dance)
Some, however, are devilishly irregular:
sum, esse, fui, futurus (to be)
ferro, ferre, tuli, latus (to carry) – did you know transfer and translate are basically the same word, meaning “carry across”?
Students, in apparent desperation at having to learn these niceties, came up with
flunko, flunkere, faculty, bouncem
to which I add my own sophomoric creation:
farto, fartere, pui, flatus
I’m quite proud of it, actually. And thanks to reader bman:
spitto, spittere, achtui, splattus
As the title of this article indicates, “leges romanorum boni sunt” (the laws of the Romans are good,) but obviously this sounds like something much sillier.
A bad Latin joke:
A professor of Latin at Yale, (sounds like a limerick in the offing, doesn’t it?) having ordered a meal at a fine New Haven restaurant, decided that he would like some wine with his dinner. So he summoned the wine steward and asked for a bottle of hock. Feeling clever, he added, “hic, haec, hoc.”
“Very good, sir,” replied the wine steward, and left.
Twenty minutes later, no wine. The learned man summoned the steward again, and asked, “Didn’t I order a bottle of hock?”
“You did indeed, sir,” replied the steward, “but then you declined it.”
Found on the wall at Pompeii:
Fortibus in ero
Demes nobus, demes trux
Vadis inem, causan dux
Dicora, dicora, doggium!
Ascendit mus horologium.
Dicora, dicora, doggium!
Parvus Jacobus Horner
Sedebat in corner
Edens a Christmas Pie
Clamans, “Quid sharp puer am I!”
Has an acuti;
No lasso finis
Macaronics are not restricted to Latin, but rather are more properly any sort of bilingual wordplay. As a teenager playing with calligraphy, I did this for my father, who long treasured it:
It’s no more Provençal than I am Abkhazian, but it makes for a funny sign, and good advice in any age.
The above sign leads me to one of the greatest collections of macaronics ever, Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames by Louis d’Antin van Rooten. This is a collection of (purportedly) classical French poetry with illuminating notes. However, if one reads them aloud, they become heavily-accented modern Mother Goose rhymes. One of my favorite examples:
Coulis de nos fête.[a]
Et soif que dites nos lignes.[b]
Et ne sauve bédouine tempo[c] y aussi,
Telle y que de plat terre, cligne.[d]
a. Coulis, a sort of strained broth. Jacques was either a sauce chef or an invalid.
b. Jacques was also an alcoholic, since his thirst is beyond description.
c. He was fond of Arab music.
d. He believed the earth was flat. The last word of the line, meaning “wink,” is obviously a stage direction. Poor Jacques, whoever he was, was obviously considered a fool.
A similar work was created for German by John Hulme: Mörder Guss Reims – the Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript. A sample:
Um die Dumm’ die Saturn Aval;
Um die Dumm’ die Ader Grät fahl.
Alter ging’s Ohr säss und Alter ging’s mähen.
Kuh den “putt” um Dieter Gitter er gähn’.
If you are familiar with both classical Greek and French, you might be both delighted and scandalized by
οὐκ ἔλαβον πόλιν, ἀλλά γάρ ἐλπίς έφὲ κακά .
Supposedly from a text by Xenophon – I have not been able to source it definitively – the sentence means “They did not capture the city, since they didn’t have a hope of taking it.” It’s pronounced “Ouk élabon polin, alla gar elpis éphè kaka.”
In French, however, it sounds like something quite different, the kind of thing schoolchildren would laugh up their sleeves about: “Où qu’est la bonne Pauline? À la gare, elle pisse et fait caca.” Google Translate will help you out if you’re really curious.
Vetus lupus locutus est.
Not really. I don’t think the Pompeiians would have resonated with
See, Willy, there they go
Forty buses, in a row
Dem is no bus, dem is trucks!
What is in ’em? Cows and ducks.
 If any classical Greek scholar would care to correct this – I know it’s not perfect – I welcome your input.
 Resistance is futile.