The Ultimate Latin Hack, #2: Puns

Mike Fontaine |

(Hack your Latin, part 6)

The way to hack Latin vocabulary and make it huge is to learn synonyms. The way to hack Latin syntax and start reading fast is to memorize puns. Sound crazy? Have a look:


                          SOLI SOLI SOLI (source here)
SOLI SOLI SOLI (source here)

Ever see that on a sundial? It means “(Dedicated) to the only sun of the earth.” It’ll help you remember that the dative of sōlus (only) is sōli (because the genitive is solīus — right?), and that beside sōl (sun), which you already know, there’s another word, sŏlum, that means soil or earth. For just three words, it’s a pretty nice hack. Yes, the vowel quantities are different. So what? When you’re reading prose, you can’t see quantities anyway. You might as well put that pun to use.

Can you get these next two? (1) Ave, ave, aveo esse aves! (2) mea mater sus est mala. The answers are below, but don’t peek. Think a bit.

Why memorize puns? Because the ambiguities in Latin aren’t infinite. Once you know them, you’ll start ignoring irrelevant ones. First you’ll do it consciously, like solving a multiple-choice question. Back in high school, for instance, you could see that two SAT answers were there to tempt lesser mortals, but they couldn’t fool you. Once you’d eliminated them, you had a 50–50 shot of getting it right. Before long, this process will happen automatically. It won’t even occur to you that a word is ambiguous. And that will take your reading to warp speed. Plus, it’s fun.

There are two ways to memorize puns. One is to make them up yourself. If you want to remember that amaris can be three things, you might say Dulcīs cum amaris, ab amaris amaris: “Though you will have loved (amaris = amaveris) nice people, you’re loved (amaris, passive) by meanies (amarus, a, um). You could do something similar for super-ambiguities like indices.

But there’s an easier way. People have noticed that Latin lends itself to puns for a long time, and they’ve already collected them. We need to rediscover those collections. Some, for instance, are found in an amazing book called Bella Bulla: Lateinische Sprachspielereien (The Beautiful Bubble: Playing with the Latin Language).


                                               A page of Bella Bulla. The malo mala examples are nonsense, but the rest are great.
A page of Bella Bulla. The malo mala examples are nonsense, but the rest are great.

Don’t worry that it’s in German. It’s the Latin you’re interested in, and you can read that. And the great thing about this fantastic book is that it reveals a whole world of fun that serious people once had with Latin, especially in the early modern period. The problem is it’s out of print.

And because it’s out of print, I hereby call for a new Bella Bulla — a group effort. Readers, I bet you know some good Latin puns already. Teachers tend to pass them around. If you do, please leave them in comments below. I’ll gather, tweak, and republish them as a post.

In the meantime, have a look at Erasmus’ dialogue Echo. It’s fun and it’s built on puns, like novi and novi, that won’t be fooling you much longer.

ANSWERS: (1) Ave, ave, aveo esse aves! means “Hi (ave), Grandpa (ave from avus), I want (aveo) to eat (esse) birds (aves)!” That teaches you a lot, especially that aveo means “I want” (= English avid) and that ēsse means “to eat.” (2) mea mater sus est mala means “My mom is a bad pig” unless you add the proper punctuation: Mea, mater! Sus est mala, “C’mere, mom! The pig is eating apples.” This hack will help you remember that meare means “to go” (English permeate), that ēst (from ēsse) means “eats,” and that mala can mean apples (māla) as well as bad (măla).



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Mike Fontaine

Cornell University professor of classics; former LLiR professor; author of Funny Words in Plautine Comedy; Advisory Board member


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