Thursday, June 21, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Laudo Capillos

This is my fifty-first "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. After yesterday's poem about the bald man, I thought I should include another one about baldness - and this one is even more sharp-tongued than yesterday's poem. I found it in Nihus' huge distich anthology; the poem itself is by Jean Tixier de Ravisi, know in Latin by the name Ravisius Textor (c. 1480-1524). Here is the poem:

Calve, mihi tecum nihil est: sed laudo capíllos,
Istud qui taetrum deseruére caput.

Here is how the poem works:

Calve. This is from the Latin adjective calvus, meaning bald (as in the Bible place name, Calvary). The gender is masculine and the case is vocative, which means the poet is speaking directly to someone: Calve, O bald man, …

mihi. This is from the Latin first-person pronoun, ego. The form is dative: mihi, to me.

tecum. This is a combination of two words: te and cum. The Latin preposition cum means with, together. The word te is from the second-person pronoun, tu. Put them together and you have a prepositional phrase: tecum, with you.

nihil. This is the Latin word for nothing (compare the English words nihilism, annihilate, etc.). The form could be either nominative or accusative; we will have to wait and see what its function is in the sentence.

est. This is from the Latin verb esse, to be (compare the English word essential). The form is third-person singular: est, it is, there is. With the verb, we now have a complete sentence: mihi tecum nihil est, there is nothing for me, mihi, with you, tecum - in other words, I have nothing to do with you, we have nothing to do with each other.

sed. This little word means but.

laudo. This is from the Latin verb laudare, meaning to praise (compare the English word laudable, and our use of the Latin phrases summa cum laude, etc.). The form is first-person singular: laudo, I praise.

capíllos. This is from the Latin word capillus, meaning hair (compare the English word capillary). The form capíllos is accusative, giving us the object of our verb: laudo capíllos, I praise the hairs. Now that is a surprise! The first word of the line, Calve, let us know that the poet is speaking to a bald man - but the last word of the line invokes hairs. What hairs? Whose hairs? We will find out in the second line!

Istud qui. Here we have two Latin pronouns: istud is the neuter form of iste, meaning that, that one (we don't have a neuter noun yet, so we will have to wait to see what it refers to). The word qui is a relative pronoun, masculine plural, referring back to our masculine noun, capíllos, in the main clause: capíllos qui, hairs which…

taetrum. This is from the Latin adjective taeter, meaning foul, disgusting, grotesque. The form is neuter, so, like istud, this tells us more about some neuter noun: some disgusting, taetrum, neuter noun. We need to read on to find out what it is.

deseruére. This is from the Latin verb deserere, to abandon, to desert. The form is third-person plural, past tense: deseruére, deserted. We already have our subject, the hairs: capíllos qui deseruére, the hairs which deserted… what? We need an object for the verb.

caput. This is the Latin noun that means head (as in English words like captain and decapitate, and also in the Latin phrase per capita). The noun is neuter accusative, giving us the object of our verb: capíllos qui deseruére caput, the hairs which deserted the head. Plus, we know more about the head - it is istud taetrum caput, that disgusting head of yours, O bald man!

Put it all together and you have quite an insult: O bald man, Calve, you and I have nothing to do with each other, mihi tecum nihil est, but I praise the hairs, laudo capíllos, which deserted, qui deseruére, your disgusting head, istud taetrum caput. The idea, of course, is that if even your own hair could not stand you, I will not have anything to do with you either... zing!

Calve, mihi tecum nihil est: sed laudo capíllos,
Istud qui taetrum deseruére caput.

I suppose from the brashness of this poem we can assume that the poet, Ravisius Textor, had a full head of luxuriant hair, ha ha (I looked for a portrait of Ravisius Textor online but could not find one, alas). Meanwhile, for more poems from Nihus' anthology, you can visit the Nihus stream in my Latin distichs blog, and as I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog likewise. The next poem is about authors, old and new: Auctores.

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