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Re: Illegitimatum Uncarborundum

Posted by Alan S. Johnson on August 30, 2000

In Reply to: Re: Illegitimatum Uncarborundum posted by Marcus on March 06, 2000

: : : : : : : : : : : : : Is there a Latin phrase something like this?
: : : : : : : : : : : : : Is this a corruption or just plain "Made-up"?

: : : : : : : : : : : : : Thanks Dennis

: : : : : : : : : : : : I guess the phrase you seek is 'illegitimi non carborundum' which roughly translates to that well known saying 'don't let the bastards grind you down'. Then again my Latin is so rusty as to border on the non-existent so I may well have got the phrase wrong.

: : : : : : : : : : : The Latin scholars here at the Institute are working on this question and will get back to you.

: : : : : : : : : : It's fake Latin, joke Latin. Carborundum, a substance used in grinding wheels, with a hardness close to diamonds, sounds enough like a Latin word to provide the minor amusement. De gustibus...

: : : : : : : : : Think again Bob: as history stretches back further than last month so also does the language.

: : : : : : : : Well, Antony (Marc Antony?) I have indeed thought again. Since carborundum is a man-made substance, invented in 1891, I made the assumption that the ancient Romans were unfamiliar with it. Quod erat demonstrandum.

: : : : : : : They may well have invented it in 1891 but what was the origin of the name? I'm sure we could give you a list as long as your arm, if not your memory, of new inventions whose names have their origins in Greek and Latin.

: : : : : : Ok, I'll make one more attempt to explain the joke... even though humor, like a frog, doesn't do well after being dissected. "Don't let the bastards grind you down" is the punch line to a joke (immortalized on coffee mugs and signs on cubicles everywhere) that is set up with the mock-Latin phrase "Illegitimi non carborundum." Now, let's dissect the frog: Illegitimi is not the Latin word for bastard (that's nothus, -um, plural -i) and in fact it doesn't seem to be a Latin word at all. I'll leave that up to authentic Latin scholars, but it doesn't appear in my Latin dictionary...) Carborundum is not a Latin word either ... the substance didn't even exist until the late 19th century. As for "grinding" ... well, there's no verb, or even mock-verb, in the phrase ... which doesn't matter, because it's a joke, people. Oops. The frog died.

: : : : : If it is made up, why, then it 's in good company since all phrases were initially made up and graduated to the status of 'a well known phrase' as a result of common usage.

: : : : : God Bless you for your attention to this matter

: : : : For what it's worth, I've also heard "Noli illegitimi carborundorum", which would be slightly better Latin if "illegitimi" and "carboro" (?) were actual Latin words.

: : : Is not the phrase carved on a wall in Pompeii - fake Latin indeed!

: : Where did you hear that story?

: Hear it? I didn't hear it. I saw it with my own eyes and the guide who pointed it out says he saw the guy who carved it.

: This "phrase" is from a misunderstanding of a passage in the Commentarium in Leviticum of Evagrius Ponticus (ad xix.29: Migne, Patr. Lat., tom. lxvi col.89 et seqq.), apparently as corrupted by a scribal error: original text should probably be "Ne illegitimi carbunculi tibi in facie sint"; now proverbial, "Don't let the bastards grind you down", traceable in English to a line of John Donne, but first attested use in its modern form (OED Suppl., 1982, s.v. carborundum) in a sermon delivered at Fort Bragg, N.C. on Apr. 4, 1920. Its almost instant wide dissemination is due to its being reported by H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, Mon. 5 Apr. 1920, in an article titled "Nursing as a Profession", p4.