Macaronics (The Legs of the Romans are Bony)

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.


LatinBumper

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
  • infinitive
  • 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:[1]

Civili derego
Fortibus in ero
Demes nobus, demes trux
Vadis inem, causan dux

——-

Dicora, dicora, doggium!
Ascendit mus horologium.
Insonuit ora,
Descendit mus,
Dicora, dicora, doggium!

HickoryDickoryWEB

——-

Parvus Jacobus Horner
Sedebat in corner
Edens a Christmas Pie
Infuerit thumb,
Extraherit plum,
Clamans, “Quid sharp puer am I!”

——-

Mollis abuti
Has an acuti;
No lasso finis
Molly divinis.

——-

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:

Pas de Lieu Rhone Que Nous

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:

Jacques s’apprête
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]

Notes:

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 .[2]

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.[3]


[1]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.

[2] If any classical Greek scholar would care to correct this – I know it’s not perfect – I welcome your input.

[3] Resistance is futile.

12 responses to “Macaronics (The Legs of the Romans are Bony)

  1. Another old sophomoric Latin verb: Spitto, spittere, ach tui, splattus.

    I’ve heard that “to be” is irregular in every known language.

    λέγω, lego (Greek I say/speak) also has three different stems, as does φέρω, phero (I carry, like the Latin verb above, but they are DIFFERENT stems!) and
    ʹοράω, horō (I see)

    • ʹοράω is the WORST. I remember learning the principle parts for that one. φερω, as you say, is pretty darned bad, too. Most people would probably think that was the worst.

      I remember Jonathan drilling me on this stuff. For some reason, he had to give me a kiss whenever we went through τιθημι, Darned if I remember why. Of course that was ohmygoodness probably 36 years ago. Eek!

    • I got a great laugh out of that first one… I’m a sucker for 8th-grade fart humor. I’m adding it to the body of the article. Classical languages were true head-crackers, but they made learning modern languages (including English, when you get into a deep study of roots, suffixes and prefixes) an order of magnitude easier.

      I am reminded of the old Chicago politician, Huck Fitzhughey…

      • I know this is going to sound like bragging, but I’m truly perplexed. So many people say that classical languages are difficult, but an awful lot of us had minimal problems. Plus they are so much fun! I was a huge fan of the Greek verb, all 990 parts of it. (Not exaggerating. I’m counting all tenses, persons, numbers, aspects, etc. And don’t forget the participles. They really fatten that number up.)

        Each of my kids took Latin for at least a couple of years—it was required at their elementary school. Only one went on to Greek, and that one still thinks Latin is superior. I am a failure as a mother.

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