Latin Words that DON'T Mean That

John Kuhner |

7 Words To Be Wary Of: Hack Your Latin, #10

 Coma, not a coma: Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Coma, not a coma: Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone gets put in the position at some point of having to translate things on the spot. If you don’t know exactly what the passage means, you’ll be tempted to offer a translation that represents the “general idea” as you see it, based on the meanings of some key words. But watch out: there are some Latin words that don’t mean what they appear. Some diverge wildly from their English meanings. And if you don’t know these words, your translation can go pretty spectacularly wrong. We’ve got a list of some of the worst offenders.

Placenta. Augustine talks about loving placentas. Seneca says that thinking about your friends being well is like having a placenta with honey on top. Jerome says it’s not a top-notch feast unless you can smell the placentas (non sunt suaves epulae quae non et placentam redoleant). What is going on here? Well placenta is the Latin word for any flour-based cake. It’s related to the verb placere, to please: it’s a baker-produced crowd pleaser. It has nothing to do with childbirth except that at some point someone (much later, apparently) thought a human placenta had a cakelike shape. The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae lists no instances where the Latin word placenta means placenta.


Morrissey wrote a song about his girlfriend’s coma, and Ovid did too. But in Latin coma means hair. Horace talking about a longa coma does not mean that anyone is in the hospital. The stuff about medical states of unresponsiveness all comes from Greek.


Prudentius says you can propitiate larvae with blood. Gregory of Tyre says that after an exorcism a larva came out of a human body. Venantius Fortunatus says that larvae will go away at the mere name of St. Martin. This has nothing to do with bugs! A larva is a ghost or spirit. It was some scientists who thought the pale forms of adolescent insects looked ghostly, though I think it’s a comedown for what was originally a terrifying word. In old Latin by the way it’s lar-u-a, three syllables.


When I die and go to the Elysian fields I’ll ask Varro what in the world happened with this word. Urina in Latin means urine. Makes sense. But the verb form of it, urinor, means “to dive into water.” Don’t ask me why. Legendary Latinist Reginald Foster went to a pool in Rome used by priests, who all had at least some Latin. He knew his Latin dictionary well, while some of the others did not. After going for a swim, he sat by the side of the pool while others continued to frolic in the water. When a friend asked him how his swim was, the Pope’s Latinist replied, “Optime! Urinatus sum in piscinam ter!” Which means he dove into the pool three times, but you can imagine the reaction he got.


Okay, this word can mean “to offend.” The problem is it usually doesn’t. It means to bump into something. Ovid talks about how a ship in scopulis offendit, scraped against or ran aground on some reefs. It can also mean to bump into people, or meet them. Very different from offending them! Or bump into something and find it. But of course sometimes you do bump into people and sometimes they are offended: hence the English (and sometimes Latin) meaning.


The Roman Stoics go on and on about how important the rectum is. Ovid says that the Golden Age cultivated faith and the rectum (“fidem rectumque colebat”). To quote Lewis and Short, this is the Latin word for all “that is right, good, virtuous; uprightness, rectitude, virtue (very frequent).” It also means “straight.” The modern anatomical meaning is an abbreviation of the phrase intestinum rectum, the straight intestine. After coiling around for quite a while the last stage of the colon straightens out, hence the English term.


While we’re on the topic, we may as well distinguish between the Latin word ānus, āni m. (meaning “anus”) and anus, anūs,f., meaning “an old female,” and applied mostly to people but also to animals (cerva anus says Ovid, an old doe), plants (Pliny mentiones anus fici, old fig-trees), and even the Earth (terra anus is in Pliny). This is far and away the more common Latin word. In general, if you see the word anus in Latin it has nothing to do with anuses.

Words like these are often called “false friends,” words that are similar in appearance or even related etymologically but which have very different meanings. You have to be wary of them — it’s easy to be tempted not to even bother to look up a word like offendere or larva — they’re so familiar! — but in Latin as in most things, not everything is as it appears: non omne tale est quale videtur.

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res. He is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster.

John Kuhner


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