WWW: Light tripping of the banded prepositions

Back in 2003, I let my Words & Stuff column stumble to an ignominious halt with column VVV, four columns from the end of the sixth alphabet worth of columns.

I always intended to finish off those last few columns, but the more time went on, the more I felt that I would need to write something weighty and substantial for them, and the more impossible that became.

But now that I’ve combined the column site with the Neology blog, it’s feeling more like I could finish those last columns, just for completeness, without making a big fuss about them.

And I just came across a post that I wrote in 2009 but never published, for no reason I can see; and it features the sort of mix of topics that I often featured in columns.

So I hereby declare this to be column WWW. I hope to write XXX, YYY, and ZZZ at some point, but I make no promises.

While researching “Buffalo buffalo buffalo” for a 2009 post, naturally I came across a Wikipedia article on Latin mnemonics. I was especially intrigued by a line apparently from Cicero: “Malo malo malo malo,” which has been translated as “I would rather be / in an apple tree / than a naughty boy / in adversity.” For a more detailed explanation, see Everything2.

There’s an expansion of that which, although it loses the elegance of using only one word (or perhaps I mean homograph), gains the advantage of sounding like it could be a sailor’s proverb: “Malo, malo, malo, malo, malo, malo, malo, quam dente vento occurrere,” translated as “I would rather meet with a bad apple, with a bad tooth, than a bad mast with a bad wind.” (Cited in Old Glasgow and its environs: historical and topographical, by Robert Reid, in a footnote on p. 284.)

Looking for that info led me to a page of Graeco Roman Puzzles, which features a couple more nice Latin bits.

First, a tongue twister: In mari meri miri mori muri necesse est, translated as “In a sea of delightful wine, a mouse may only die.”

Second, another nicely repetitive phrase: Persevera, per severa, per se vera. “Persist, through difficulties, even though it is hard.”

The Wikipedia article about Latin mnemonics also mentions a rhyme for remembering which Latin prepositions take the ablative case, and references the following comments by Thomas Thornely, which I thought were charming:

Whose heart has not been stirred in early youth by the solemn chant of the Latin prepositions that govern the ablative?

A, ab, abque, coram, de
Palam, clam, cum, ex and e
Tenus, sine, pro and prae.

In this meaningless collocation of syllables we seem to hear the low rumbling of thunder of the Dies irae and are naturally led to contrast it with the light tripping of the banded prepositions that favour the accusative.

—Thomas Thornely, as quoted in Latin, or, The empire of a sign: from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, by Françoise Waquet, translated by John Howe, p. 112.

One Response to “WWW: Light tripping of the banded prepositions”

  1. Ruth

    Not a mnemonic, but a propos, in German, wenn Fliegen hinter Fliegen fliegen, fliegen Fliegen Fliegen nach. When flies follow flies, flies fly after flies. Almost as good in English, now that I think on it. Thank you for that – I could have used the ablative rhyme in high school and will likely always remember Malo malo malo malo now.


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