01(17): Joyce’s Ulysses, and the legacy of Latin

Nicholas Loh Avatar

What image is conjured in your mind when you encounter the word “Latin”? You would probably think of a bunch of old priests in parishes chanting in an esoteric language, and indeed – you would be right. As I type this, I am reminded of James Joyce’s phenomenal encyclopaedic novel, Ulysses. I shall first talk about this book and one of its passages before I talk about the legacy of Latin in general.

According to its Wikipedia article, Ulysses is a modernist novel and since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny due to its anti-Christian rhetoric. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose – replete with puns, parodies, and allusions – as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history. The book even has its day of celebration (known as Bloomsday) – June 16! This is because the events as chronicled in the book all take place within a single day: 16 June 1904!

This is a quote from the author himself: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

This book certainly appeals to those who are very well-read. When I say “very”, I mean “very“. To fully appreciate the book would require one to be well-acquainted with the Bible, classical works in various fields (philosophy, literature, history), practices of the Roman Catholic church, Greek and Roman culture and mythology, etc. Fully appreciating even just the title of the book requires familiarity with Greek mythology. It requires one to recognise that “Ulysses” is the Latin variant of “Odysseus”, the name of an entity in Greek mythology. Unsurprisingly, the events of the book resemble the events that Homer’s Odysseus undergoes. This is but one of the many examples of the contextual knowledge required to appreciate this monstrous work.

On a relevant Wikibooks page of the book, it is stated that the book’s encyclopaedic nature and voluminous display of erudition have proved to be stumbling blocks for many readers. The reader’s initial enthusiasm for the book is whittled away at the expense of a growing sense of bewilderment, as a mass of unexplained references and quotations piles up. Bewilderment inevitably gives rise to frustration, and this frustration provides the reader with an excuse to give up.

I would argue that it is precisely because this book is so challenging to the casual reader, that many people would strive to understand all the puns, parodies, and allusions. Moreover, there is much that can be learnt if one goes to the extent of probing into why Joyce writes about a particular thing or why Joyce writes in a certain way. Learning new information this way is certainly more accessible than doing what Joyce did to procure all of the knowledge he needed to produce this work.

The book opens with the following passage:

Meanwhile, here are the annotations to the above passage:

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? This is madness. God bless the soul of any student of English Literature who dares attempt to trudge through this labyrinth of a novel on his own.

The reason I gave such an extensive introduction to Joyce’s work is that I ultimately wanted to talk about the Latin phrase which is used just on the first page alone.

“Introibo ad Altare Dei”. I self-studied some basic Latin previously, so allow me to help in dissecting this phrase for you so that you too, can understand its meaning. 1) Perhaps the most challenging word for most people in this phrase would be the first-word “Introibo”. Doesn’t this bear resemblance to the word “Introit” that we see during church services? It shares the same root prefix as the word “introduce”. Indeed, the word “introibo” is an inflection of the word “introeo” – specifically, the first-person singular future active indicative (Latin is a highly-inflected language). The ending “-o” in “introibo” tells us that it is the first-person. Hence, the word “introibo” has the meaning “I will enter”.

2) The word “ad” should be fairly easy to understand. It is a preposition in Latin and usually means “at”. It can also mean “to; for; on”. In fact, “ad” and “at” are cognates. It is seen within set phrases such as “ad hominem”, “ad nauseam”. “ad infinitum”.

3) The Latin word “altare” should be pretty self-explanatory. It bears much resemblance to the English word “altar” and is unsurprisingly, the word from which the word “altar” is derived.

4) The Latin word “Dei” is the genitive form of the nominative “Deus”, which is Latin for “God”. When we say that the word X is in the genitive form, it is helpful to think of it as “of X”. Hence, “Dei” means “of God”. It is from “Deus” that we get words such as “deity”, “deus ex machina” (this plot device literally means “god from the machine”). As I was typing this, I suspected that the word “Deus” might have come from the Greek word “theos” which also means “God”. It is where we have words such as “theology”. Surprisingly, despite the superficial similarity in form and meaning, “Deus” and “theos” are not related as the two come from different roots. Kudos to Wiktionary for that piece of information.

Hence, we can piece everything to decipher the meaning of “Introibo ad Altare Dei”. It thus means: “I will go in to the altar of God”. I will now quote the relevant portions in the above-mentioned annotations.

Consider that first sentence once again: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”. By the way, this first sentence in Ulysses is rated by The Guardian the top 10 best first lines in fiction. A stairhead is a level space at the top of a flight of steps. Buck Mulligan, in mockery of the Catholic ceremony of the Tridentine Mass, has just ascended the steps in imitation of a Roman Catholic priest ascending the steps to the altar.

Moreover, the shaving bowl which Mulligan carries is a mockery of the chalice that a Roman Catholic priest would hold (the chalice holds the wine). Interestingly, Roman Catholicism adheres to the doctrine of transubstantiation (they hold the view that the wine transforms into the actual blood of Christ upon consecration). Such audacity – that the shaving bowl is being compared to a chalice that holds the blood of Christ. Outrageous indeed.

Within the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin Tridentine Mass (Traditional Latin Mass) opens with the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar. After making the Sign of the Cross, the priest and his servers intone an antiphon (a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm) based on Psalm 43:4 (Psalm 42:4 in the Vulgate), Iudica Me, Deus (Latin for “Judge Me, O God“), which Buck Mulligan quotes. By intoning these words after he had ascended the steps, Mulligan has perverted the order of the liturgy.

Interesting, isn’t it?

At the risk of an oversimplification, Latin should have died totally when the Western Roman Empire ultimately fell. Of course, Latin didn’t totally die. It didn’t because of the world’s continuously functioning institution – the Roman Catholic Church. Since time immemorial, Latin has been the official language employed by the Church. In the medieval ages, the papacy was highly influential and there was always a tension between the monarchs and the Pope: who wielded more influence? On one hand, the monarchs were the ones with direct control over the troops, but on the other, the monarchs had their positions only by the grace of God (note that the Roman Catholic Church affirms that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ; hence, the “divine right of monarchs” would not be valid without the Pope’s approval). The Church was a dominant influence on Western civilization from Late Antiquity (fall of the Western Roman Empire) to the dawn of the modern age (Renaissance).

I briefly mentioned the Vulgate earlier. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the late 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible. It was basically the only Bible translation that people ever knew for over a thousand years (AD 400-1530). It was, unsurprisingly, the invention of the printing press that led to the widespread dissemination of translations of the Bible in other languages. The printing press made it much tougher for the Church to curb the dissemination of alternative translations (basically anything other than the Vulgate). Prior to the printing press’ invention, Bibles were painstakingly produced by manual copying, and virtually all these Bibles were Vulgates. How laborious indeed. Latin was the language of the Church, the educated, the elite, and the whole system just ensured its continued usage.

The Vulgate had a large influence on the development of the English language, especially in matters of religion. Many Latin words were taken from the Vulgate into English nearly unchanged in meaning or spelling: creatio, salvatio, justificatio, testamentum, sanctificatio, regeneratio, and raptura. The word “publican” comes from the Latin publicanus (cf Mt 10:3), and the phrase “be it far” is a translation of the Latin expression absit (cf Mt 16:22). Other examples include apostolus, ecclesia, evangelium, Pascha, and angelus.

Regarding the English language, borrowing from Latin occurred from ecclesiastical usage established by Augustine of Canterbury, and indirectly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 through the Anglo-Norman language. During the Renaissance and beyond, as the term suggests, many writers “re-discovered” the works of classical antiquity. As such, English writers cobbled together huge numbers of new words from Latin and Greek words, dubbed “inkhorn terms”. The title of my first blog post is a partial example of an inkhorn term: “Blogogenesis”!

The influence of Roman governance and Roman technology on the less-developed nations under Roman dominion led to the adoption of Latin phraseology in some specialized areas, such as science, technology, medicine, and law. For example, the Linnaean system of plant and animal classification was heavily influenced by Historia Naturalis, an encyclopedia of people, places, plants, animals, and things published by Pliny the Elder. We have terms such as Homo sapiens (literally Latin for ‘wise man’) to describe our species. Binomial nomenclature characterises the Linnaean system.

Roman medicine, recorded in the works of such physicians as Galen, established that today’s medical terminology (e.g. atherosclerosis, hypoglycaemia, ophthalmology) would be primarily derived from Latin and Greek words, the Greek being filtered through the Latin. Roman engineering had the same effect on scientific terminology as a whole. Latin law principles have survived partly in a long list of Latin legal terms (e.g. mens rea, in absentia, ex post facto, habeas corpus).

Basically, in any technical field, Latin and Greek roots will be used to come up with new terms to describe a particular phenomena or object. It certainly sounds fancy and certainly makes the people who use such jargon to appear more sophisticated.

Now, I shall talk about Latin’s legacy in some words and contractions that I find interesting. You may be surprised by some of the words’ history.

AD/BC: As a child, I knew that the Gregorian calendar uses Jesus’ life as a reference point that demarcates the two eras: the era before Jesus’ birth and the era after Jesus’ birth. I knew that BC meant “Before Christ”. So, I had just thought that AD meant ‘After Death’ without giving it much thought. Of course, 10 seconds of thinking about it seriously would tell you that this didn’t make any sense at all since Jesus didn’t die the year he was born. AD is short for the Latin “Anno Domini” which translates to “In the year of the Lord”. People sometimes erroneously translate it as “In the year of our Lord”. While that would still be factual, that isn’t strictly what “Anno Domini” says. For the translation “In the year of our Lord” to be valid, the phrase would need to be “Anno Domini Nostri”. The word “Nostri” is what gives the meaning “our”. We see this somewhere else too. The Romans would call the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum”, which literally translates to “Our Sea”. At its peak, the Roman Empire occupied all the territory that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.

You might notice how some people use CE/BCE (Common Era/Before Common Era) instead of the AD/BC system respectively. The change is simply one of semantics—that is, AD 100 is the same as 100 CE; all that changes is the label. The advocates of the switch from BC/AD to BCE/CE say that the newer designations are better in that they are devoid of religious connotation and thus prevent offending other cultures and religions who may not see Jesus as “Lord”. The irony, of course, is that what distinguishes BCE from CE is still the life and times of Jesus Christ.

Auspicium Melioris Aevi: Rafflesians should recognise this. The word ‘auspicium’ comes from the word ‘auspex’ which means ‘augur or priest’. ‘Auspicium’ can mean ‘sign or indication’. It is where we get the English words “auspicious”, “auspice”, The word “melioris’ comes from the nominative “melior”. It means “better” and this is where we get words such as “ameliorate” – a fancy word for “improve”. The word ‘aevi’ comes from the nominative ‘aevum’ and means ‘time; eternity; age’. Both ‘Melioris’ and ‘Aevi’ are in the genitive case. “Melioris” is an adjective, and it describes “Aevi”. Thus, one rendering of this motto is “Hope of a Better Age”.

am/pm: We use these contractions all the time. They stand for “ante meridiem” and “post meridiem”, which literally mean “before the mid-day” and “after the mid-day” respectively. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Dominus illuminatio mea: This is Oxford’s motto and it means: “The Lord is my light”. Not too tough, right?

eg/ie: These are among the most frequently used Latin contractions. They stand for the Latin “exempli gratia” and “id est”, which mean “for the sake of example” and “that is” respectively. Many people use them wrongly. The use of the former is self-explanatory, hopefully. The latter is used when when you are re-phrasing something (ie using other words). See what I did there?

etc: This is short for the Latin “et cetera”, which means “and others”.

ibid: You might see this in research papers and academic writing. This is short for the Latin “ibidem” and means “in the same place”

LLB/LLM: These mean “Bachelor of Laws” and “Master of Laws”, which come from the Latin “Legum Baccalaureus” and “Legum Magister” respectively. You might now ask: why then are there two letter ‘l’s in LLB/LLM? Well, that is because ‘legum’ is the plural of ‘lex’, the Latin singular for the word ‘law’. Latin plurals often abbreviate by doubling the first letter (eg ‘pp’ for pages).

NB: When you use BC, ensure that you put the year before the term BC (i.e. 37 BC), whereas the year comes after the term AD (i.e. AD 2019). Were you wondering what NB means? Well, it is short for the Latin “Nota Bene” which literally means “good note”. It is from the Latin word “bene” that we get words such as benevolence, benediction (literally means “good words”) and of course, the name Benedict.

Nil Sine Labore: This is VJC’s motto. The word “sine” here means ‘without’ and this word also appears in the phrase “sine qua non”. As you might easily guess, the motto means “nothing without labour”.

PhD/DPhil: Some people have told me jokingly that a ‘PhD’ stands for ‘Permanent Head Damage’. Well, see that lowercase ‘h’ over there? That means that ‘Ph’ is a contraction of a single word. The term ‘PhD’ stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, which comes from the Latin ‘Philosophiae Doctor’. Do you see that ‘-ae’ ending in ‘Philosophiae’? Well, that is the genitive for you right there. ‘Philosophiae’ thus means ‘of Philosophy’, just as ‘Dei’ means ‘of God’ as we discussed earlier.

PS: This is short for “Post Scriptum”. Traditionally, it is used when you realise that you forgot to write something but you unfortunately, you already signed off on your letter. Given that digital communication is increasingly ubiquitous, using PS doesn’t make sense anymore, strictly speaking.

QED: Some people erroneously think that this means “Quite Easily Done”. This is actually a contraction of the Latin “Quod Erat Demonstandum”, which loosely translates to “that which was to be demonstrated”. It is often found at the conclusion of mathematical proofs.

Veritas: This is Harvard University’s motto. It is Latin for ‘truth’. Veritas is the goddess of truth in Roman mythology. It is where we get words such as ‘verify’ and ‘veracity’. It also follows that we are not using the word ‘very’ correctly.

viz: This is short for the Latin “videlicet”, which means “namely”. This is another one of those terms you will encounter in academic writing. This belongs to the realm of words with “et al”, “ibid”, etc.

I hope you have found this post insightful!

Yours faithfully,
Nicholas Loh
24 February 2019

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_(novel)
2. https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Annotations_to_James_Joyce%27s_Ulysses
3. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ad#Latin
4. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/deus#Latin
5. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2012/apr/29/ten-best-first-lines-fiction#_=_
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church#Antiquity_and_Roman_Empire
7. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/melior#Latin

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