By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the function of the Latin language in English was very different than it had been at the beginning of the Early Modern Period. Latin was the main source of borrowed words augmenting the English lexicon which began to be used increasingly to discuss areas of science and academia (Nevalainen 364). The effect of Latin on English is so lasting, however, that it is impossible to leave some knowledge of Latin completely behind. The dichotomy of who possesses this knowledge and who does not continues to surround the function of Latin in English today, just as it did during the Humanist movement of the Renaissance. Then, as now, the advanced knowledge of Latin was associated with the learned elite, while those without formal education either did not know Latin at all or knew only some stock phrases. This discussion will look at two areas of intersection between English and Latin since 1800: its impact on science and medicine, and the characteristics of Latin tags, short phrases used in elevated discourse that are recognized as Latin even if their meanings are not now known.
Scientific and Medical Language
Edward Finegan writes that “well before the eighteenth century entered its final quarter, English had extended its robust reach into every domain of use” (Finegan 538). While the vernacular still required additional regulation, its borrowings and constructions from other languages, especially Latin, allowed English to function in literary, legal, commercial, and scientific forums. According to David Crystal, scientific nomenclature accounts for most of the Present Day English vocabulary (Crystal 372) and in the early nineteenth century medical doctors were especially adept at creating new terms from classical sources to name common ailments (Bailey 140). The naming of the inflammations of various organs was very popular resulting in tonsillitis (1801), gastritis (1806), prostatitis (1844), and appendicitis (1886). The procedures for the removal of diseased parts of the body were also given elevated names such as gastroectomy (1886), prostatectomy (1890), and appendectomy (1895) (Bailey 140).
This new language accorded a measure of respectability to physicians who could speak above the understanding of the patients they treated. This was not always appreciated by the patients, however, and the complaint was not new. Suzanne Romaine quotes Thomas Phaire who attacked the Latinism of medical treatises:
How long would they haue the people ignorant? Why grutche they phsyicke to come forth in Engliyshe? Woulde they haue no man to know but onely they? (The Boke of Chyldren, 1545, ed Neale and Wallis 1955). (quoted by Romaine, 21)
Bailey notes that the trend in word creation in the medical and scientific circles of the nineteenth century revived the inkhorn controversy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Bailey 141). The first concern in the nineteenth century was based on equality: while the new words were transparent to those who worked in the field, they were incredibly obscure to those who were not, that is, men without a classical education and the majority of women (Bailey 141). In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal retells an anecdote from Bridge’s On the Present State of English Pronunciation (1913) about a patient who, having been prescribed a placebo, read the Latin ‘ter die’ on his chart and interpreted it as ‘to die’. The patient promptly bolted from the hospital (Crystal 255). While Crystal includes the tale as an amusing example of the controversy over accent differentiation it also illustrates that those not in the medical profession needed, and continue to need, interpretation of its Latin jargon. Had the patient known that placebo is the Latin first person singular indicative of placere, ‘to please’ and refers to a substance given as a medicine but which actually has no effect (OED), and ter die simply means ‘three times a day’ he would have been far less disconcerted. Other opponents to the excessive use of borrowed terms simply felt that cluttering the English language with foreign constructions “help to deface the characteristic traits of our mother tongue, and to mar and stunt its kindly growth” (R.White, 1872; quoted by Bailey, 142). Finegan notes that “the place of English in the intellectual life of Britain had become a matter of some pride,” (Finegan 537) and thus the concern was that English would not be able to develop out of its unregulated, uncultivated state if Latin and Greek constantly superseded it in matters of science and academia.
The second issue with the newly coined medical terms concerned the etymological purity of the words constructed. It will have been noticed in the examples above that –itis and –tomy are not Latin suffixes, but rather are derived from Greek (Bailey 142). Purists believed that they should thus only pair with words of Greek origin. As Bailey notes, somewhat ironically, “Such ‘mistakes’ in the creation of new words were visible only to those who, schooled in Greek and Latin, arrogated to themselves a privileged authority to opine about English” (Bailey 142). In addition, this second objection creates another level in the social division generated by Latin. First, there are those who are familiar with the classics and understand the etymologies; second, those who employ the aspects of both the Greek and Latin to create a learned term without understanding etymology; and finally those who are unfamiliar with any aspect of either Latin or Greek.
Although the promotion of English as the language of science and medicine in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had much to do with national pride and the accessibility of the language, its use was necessarily confined to England, and in scientific and technological circles, the ability to communicate with international audience is invaluable. While these anglicized Latin and Greek compounds may have seemed mysterious to the lay person, they would be more accessible to scientists in other countries. Romaine notes that, while English has since become the “lingua franca of science and technology” its status as such at the beginning of the nineteenth century had not yet been established (Romaine 21). Today, while English has achieved enormous currency, many medical terms like femur, tibia, patella remain in Latin as part of a recognized language for speaking on medical subjects. One of the most regulated of the sciences with respect to Latin is Botany, in which Latin is the accepted official of nomenclature (Crystal 372). In Botany, combinations of Greek and Latin are therefore unacceptable. In all of these situations, Latin ensures that concepts are understood across a broad audience and are in no way politically affiliated. That Latin creates a distinction between those who educated in the field and those who are not is perhaps a side-effect of the need for precision in the terms that are chosen.
In his book Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England 1830-1960, Christopher Stray notes that the National Curriculum brought forth in 1988 in England and Wales did not refer to the study of classics in the United Kingdom. He writes, “Nothing shows more clearly just how marginalized a subject has become which once lay at the heart of English high culture” (Stray 1) According to Stray, the universities abandoned compulsory Latin forty years after the First World War, a move which “brought to an end a long history of cultural authority” (Stray 1). Latin became a subject one could take if desired, and the result has been that many highly educated people have little or no understanding of the language that has shaped so much of English grammar, vocabulary, and literature. Despite its removal from the compulsory curriculum, Latin continues to affect the lives of English speakers, sometimes very unconsciously.
In The Oxford Companion to the English Language Tom McArthur discusses the use of Latin Tags. These tags are Latin phrases or expressions in English and are common in both academic circles and in everyday usage. McArthur notes that these tags were widely used until the mid-twentieth century as a mark of education, but lately have become less common and less understood in educated circles. Just as Samuel Johnson attracted criticism for his Latinisms, so too is the use of extremely rare tags deemed affected and unnecessary today (McArthur 591). Often scholars know the correct context in which to use a Latin Tag without actually knowing exactly what it means in Latin. Examples of Latin Tags are modus operandi, deus ex machina, op. cit. (opus citatum, the work quoted or opere citato, in the work quoted), Tempus fugit, and mea culpa. Some Latin Tags are used as mottoes, for example Canada’s national motto is “A mari usque ad mare,” from sea to sea; while that of the University of Toronto is “Velut arbor ævo,” I grow as a tree. What is interesting is that both of these mottos were created long after English had become the language of academia, while the use of Latin confers a mark of education and promotes esotericism.
Despite the elitism surrounding the use of some Latin Tags, others, according to McArthur, are “firmly entrenched in everyday usage” (McArthur 591). In law (habeas corpus), in medicine (post mortem), in logic (non sequitur, et cetera) in administration (ad hoc), in religion (Requiescat in pace), and as sayings (carpe diem, in vino veritas) (McArthur 591). The influence of Latin on English is underscored by the fact that most of these, and others, can be found in the OED.
As in previous centuries, the ability for Latin to be a divisive social marker remains an issue today. The mixture of Latin and English in the medical and scientific fields supports an esoteric elite since Latin as a compulsory component of standard education no longer exists. Since the English language owes so much to the influence of Latin, perhaps some sense of George Eliot’s description of Dorothea Brooke’s desire to learn Latin still rings true today: Latin and Greek “seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly” (Eliot 59). Certainly the knowledge of Latin continues to illuminate the English of the twenty-first century.
Bailey, Richard W. Nineteenth-Century English. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch [1871-2]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Finegan, Edward. “English Grammar and Common Usage.” In Suzanne Romaine, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1776-1997. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language. 2nd ed. Florida: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1996.
Nevalainen, Terttu. “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics,” In Roger Lass, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Romaine, Suzanne. “Introduction.” In Suzanne Romaine, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language 1776-1997. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1998.