When Latin goes wrong

Sean Hannity's viral gaffe this summer was one of the many recent Latin translations to go wrong. Some have a more hilarious side
October 4, 2020

Here’s a morality tale. The Fox News presenter Sean Hannity published a book this summer. The title, Live Free Or Die: America (And The World) On The Brink, leaves little to the imagination as to its contents. In pre-publication publicity, the book jacket featured a Latin tag, “vivamus vel libero perit Americae,” which Hannity translated as “live free or America dies.”

But that’s definitely not what it means. Spencer Alexander McDaniel, a classics undergraduate in Indiana, struggled bravely with this word soup, eventually coming up with the following translation, which he published on his blog: “Let’s live or he passes away from America for the detriment of a free man.” The “Latin” is utter gobbledygook. It’s what you get if you stick “Live free or America dies” into Google Translate. Mocked on social media, the motto was dropped from the final cover.

The moral of the story? Don’t use an ancient language you don’t understand to show off. Don’t use Latin to assert some assumed cultural superiority. Specifically, don’t attempt to use Latin to give your shoddy polemic a gloss of gravitas. I’m guilty of having used Latin to look clever at times (OK, the word gravitas is itself Latin), but really it is not a good look.

Mistranslation of Latin can of course have its hilarious side. Exploring the arcane world of classically themed gifts on the internet recently—I know, I know—I saw mugs inscribed with the words “pedicabo vos et irrumabo.” This is the immortal opening line of a poem by Catullus, the Roman writer of the 1st century BCE famed for his passionate love lyrics and bouts of filthy invective. Surprised, I looked to the description, which declared the words translated as “I love you.” Hmmm, not really. This sentence was deemed so unsuitable for teenagers that the poem was redacted from my school edition of Catullus’ works. Toned down a bit, “pedicabo vos et irrumabomeans “I will bugger you and stuff you.” That’s an interesting intention to declare while drinking your morning cuppa.

Surely the sellers of the mug must have been in on the joke. At any rate, after eyebrows were raised on Twitter, the photo of the mug was replaced by a demure image of a fig leaf, a “mature content” tag, and a vague description (“Catullus 16, Floral Classic Mug.”)

Then there is the whole family of misuse of Latin in commercial contexts. Near where I live in London is a florist called Aflorum. Florum means flower in Latin. So far so good. But what about the “a-” prefix? No idea whatever. It doesn’t mean anything in Latin. In Greek, though, an alpha prefix tends to negate the following word, as in one of the most characteristic words of the coronavirus pandemic, asymptomatic. That’s why I can’t help reading Aflorum as meaning “without any flowers,” which I’m guessing wasn’t the intended effect.

Another favourite is the hair salon in the west end of Glasgow called Crinis Formé. Crinis is definitely Latin for hair. Formé is the past participle of the French former. “Groomed hair,” I suppose it means. It’s strange but it always makes me laugh, particularly when said in a deliberately daft voice. The world would be a much unhappier place without hairdressers’ terrible puns, Latin or otherwise. Which reminds me, I’m due for a trim: I must call up Julius Scissor and make an appointment.