Classicists and Latinists

John Kuhner |

Sometimes a Great Classicist Is a Bad Latinist, and That’s Okay


 Can you spot the mistake in this photo?Can you spot the mistake in this photo?


[A version of this article first appeared in the November 2019 edition of Inside the Vatican magazine.]

Most people who have studied Latin have some story about the incredible erudition and knowledge of arcana displayed by some former Latin teacher or Classics professor of theirs. I have known people who could list every consul from the last century of the Republic, who could tell a Glyconic from an Ionic meter, and I even heard one scholar learnedly disquire on the regions of the ancient world that produced poison honey. A knowledge of the Classical world is a lifelong endeavor, and often the results are extraordinarily impressive.

But there’s a difference between being a Classicist and being a Latinist, and the Vatican’s Latin office produces Latinists. I wrote earlier about some of the disagreements between Vatican Latinists when it came to christening Australian dioceses with Latin names. Vatican Latinists may not typically delve into the Classical arcana like varieties of ancient Mediterranean honey, but their practical knowledge of the language is often second to none. And a knowledge of Latin place names is an essential part of their practice. When you walk into the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, you confront an entire wall given over to a vast modern map of the world in Latin, with every city that serves as the seat of an apostolic nuncio or delegate labeled: Vasintonia for Washington, D.C., Bonaeropolis for Buenos Aires, Mons Videus for Monte Video, and so on. For others this is arcana — for Vatican Latinists this is just what’s on the bulletin board at work. Correspondence goes out from the Latin office to bishops and diplomats all over the world, and knowledge of modern place-names in Latin — the sort of thing a Classicist would disdain as far too au courant — is just part of the job.

There have been occasional examples of Classicists being employed as Latinists — often successfully, but occasionally with disastrous results. One such Classicist who turned his philological acumen to the problem of modern place-names is Professor Andrew Fleming West (1853–1943), the redoubtable Classicist who taught at Princeton for forty-five years. George F. Will, the conservative commentator, puts West at the center of what he calls — with tongue only partially in cheek — “the most important decision of the twentieth century… where to put the Princeton university graduate school.” It was this conflict which brought Will’s personal bete noire, Woodrow Wilson, to political prominence:


Woodrow Wilson wanted it [the graduate school] on the campus. His nemesis, Dean Andrew Fleming West wanted it where it is, upon a hill, near the college. Wilson had one of his characteristic tantrums, resigned, went into politics, and ruined the 20th century. I simplify a bit and exaggerate somewhat.

West also appears in history as the Classicist who ruined the facade of the New York Academy of Medicine, an imposing 1925 stone building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The Academy had a simple request: they wanted to write “New York Academy of Medicine” in giant stone letters on the facade of their new building — in Latin. They asked Andrew Fleming West, who as a famous Classics Professor, Dean of Princeton University’s Graduate School, founder of the American Classical League, and former President of the American Philological Association seemed impervious to error in so simple a matter, to do the translation. So with great confidence they carved on to their facade what he told them to carve: ACADEMIA MEDICINAE NOVA EBORACENSIS. Reading it straight through, it looks plausible enough: the words mean “Academy,” “of medicine,” “new,” and “located in York.” But the adjective for “New York” is Neo-Eboracensis, or more rarely, Noveboracensis. And certainly not Nova Eboracensis. West probably got his nova from the Latin name for New Jersey, Nova Caesarea, and its adjective, Novacaesariensis, which used to be on the Princeton University seal back in the days when it was called the College of New Jersey. But there’s nothing feminine in York — Eboracum — to justify nova being feminine when it comes to New York. And hence nova has to go with academia, and the inscription has to mean “the New Academy of York Medicine.”

As soon as the building was unveiled, complaints from Latinists started coming in, complaints which have been preserved in the New York Academy of Medicine’s archives, and which are delightfully chronicled by Fordham Classics Professor Matthew McGowan in his book Classical New York. One critic carped that this “error, in such stately lettering, is literally monumental.” (Finally! A correct use of “literally”!) Another called it “most discreditable” to the institution. A board member provided the Academy’s craven defense: “We trusted that the inexpertness of the average New Yorker in Latin might cover up the deplorable ignorance of the inscription.” But one critic, Dr. William Osler of McGill University, had it right, suggesting that for such matters the right person for the job was a Latinist, not a Classicist. And where could Latinists be found? Among the people handling internal correspondence for the Roman Catholic Church. “With all due tact and respect,” Osler wrote, “drop the Princeton professor and consult the Latin secretary of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York.”

In recent years, there is some indication that Classicists and Latinists are drawing a bit closer, and sharing their knowledge with each other. Many trained Classicists have been seeking out, on their own time, the knowledge of place-names and colloquial expressions that typically distinguish the Latinist. Two years ago, Cornell University hired a Latinist, Daniel Gallagher, out of the Vatican’s Latin office, giving him as a position as “Professor of the Practice of Latin.” The Paideia Institute has drawn much of its inspiration from the Latinist side, but also a great deal from the world of Classics per se, and has always tried to have both Latinists and Classicists teaching its courses. It’s a useful distinction, and it’s key for understanding the place that Latin has in the Church as well. Vatican Latinists might not have put in the years studying Greek potsherds or ancient military equipment that some Classicists have, but they can boast of an experience in the use of the Latin language that almost no one else has nowadays. So if you want to know how the ancient Greeks held elections, or what kind of rights freed Roman slaves had, you’ll need to ask a Classicist. But if you’re looking to translate your next tattoo into Latin, you might want to double-check it with a Latinist.

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res. He is working on a biography of the Latinist Fr. Reginald Foster.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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