Thursday, June 28, 2007

Politicos and Latin Mottos

Back to Scotland we go for a bit of bad Latin from Parliamentarian and Beatles fan Alistair Darling:

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Darling reeled off Loretto School's motto - "Spartan nactus est, hanc exorna" - and said: "It was usually translated at school as 'you've attained Sparta, now live up to it'.

"But I was at school in the 1960s. When I was in my second year, I was listening to the motto in one ear and Sergeant Pepper in the other. The two didn't quite fit."
I don't like the idea of blaming the Fab Four for basic errors in Latin accidence. ('Spartan' can't be a Latin form, and est is third person where we need second.) The form should be 'Spartam nactus es; hanc orna.' (The compound exorna appears in some variations).

In this form it goes back to Erasmus whose advice to a prince (any prince) was that 'you have obtained Sparta; make it splendid.'

This was borrowed from Plutarch's Σπάρταν ἔλαχες, ταύτην κόσμει, which appears twice and is quoted as a proverb. The sense of it is that one should do his best to improve his lot, whatever state it may be. Adorning Sparta sounds to me like a daunting task. It's not bad advice for a politician.

It seems that school mottos are all the rage in the UK today. After Tony Blair stepped down his replacement, Gordon Brown, used the English translation of his school's motto 'I will try my utmost' (usque conabor). The BBC has more on that and other Latin mottos.

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