macaronic wordplay

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 28 19:51:01 UTC 2008

Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing, Larry. When I first heard the
pswaydo-Latin, _Nihil nisi bastardi carborundum est_, translated as,
"Don't let the bastards grind you down!", back in the 'Fiddies, I
couldn't make any sense out of it at all and failed utterly to get the
point, even after I had heard several explanations of it. Back in the
day, I had placed third in the National Jesuit High-School Latin
Contest and I knew damned well that that quotation was simply
gibberish. I just couldn't wrap my head around the possibility that
anyone could understand it as a joke, when it was clearly utter
nonsense. I understood that a "bastard" was a kind of file and that
Carborundum was the name of a company that made files and other
grinding materials. But, beyond that, I was lost. It was years before
I finally cottoned to the fact that it was gibberish was itself the
point that was supposed to make the phrase a funny pun.

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

On Sun, Dec 28, 2008 at 11:53 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: macaronic wordplay
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 11:38 AM -0500 12/28/08, Mark Mandel wrote:
>>Heard on the weekend on, I think, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me", after
>>something about a Harvard basketball team, from Amy Dickinson:
>>"As it were -- that's their motto."
>>And I went
>>    tick... tick... BOOM!
>>as (to mix metaphors) the penny dropped:
>>1. Harvard's motto, "Veritas", in the classical pronunciation: /'wEritas/
>>2. Split and reverse order: "as it were"
>>Mark Mandel
> This one really puzzled me on first read-through, partly because of
> the obscurity of the algorithm (pronounce as in classical Latin,
> which Harvard's motto rarely is, and then reverse order of syllables
> and treat each as an English word?) and partly because I read it as
> having been observed by *Emily* Dickinson, who wouldn't have been a
> close follower of Harvard basketball.  Whatever.
> LH
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list