NUMEN AND GENDER POLITICS.

The Berkshire Eagle has an article today that goes into more detail about translation from Latin than any newspaper article I’ve seen in a long time. It seems that the motto of the town of Pittsfield (as well of Pittsburgh), “Benigno Numine,” has been translated by St. Joseph’s Central High School Latin teacher Kathleen Canning as “Under Protection of the Goddess.” The paper quotes her as saying that

benignus has masculine, feminine and nongender endings, and that “benigno” is the “neuter form” of the noun.
Because both words in the city motto contain endings with no specific gender, they could be used to refer to a “goddess,” Canning said.

I’ll be charitable here and assume the reference to the adjective benignus as a noun is the paper’s mistake and not Canning’s, but the idea of translating numen as “Goddess” is just silly, I don’t care what they told her in civics class. The story goes on to say that “Mary C. Quirk, who teaches Latin at Miss Hall’s School, found 17 possible translations for the city motto, ranging from ‘propitious divine will’ to ‘with kind-hearted favor or approval (of the gods),’ to ‘with benign power,’ to ‘by beneficent authority’”; any of them would be a great deal better. (Thanks for the tip, Leslie!)

Comments

  1. The whole phrase is “benigno numine Iuppiter,” in Lang & Shorey, eds., Horace, Carmina, Book 4, Poem 4, line 73. Heh heh. I love the Internet.

  2. Well done, O b.v.i.! The stanza is:
    nil Claudiae non perficient manus,
    quas et benigno numine Iuppiter
      defendit et curae sagaces
        expediunt per acuta belli.
    ‘There is nothing that shall not be accomplished by Claudian hands, which Jove defends with his friendly numen (majesty or what have you) and wise counsels guide through the crises of war.’ Or words to that effect; my Latinity is rusty. At any rate, I think we can rule out the Goddess. Nunc est bibendum!

  3. Sounds good to me. Yeah, there’s no reason that numen couldn’t mean Goddess if it came floating in out of nowhere (still not the first thing that comes to mind)… but town mottoes rarely do come floating in out of nowhere. Hell, even E Pluribus Unum comes from somewhere, unlikely though that source may be.
    It’s amazing how often this sort of thing comes up- some organization forgets what its motto means, then contacts a random person who knows Latin, who is forced to fall back on dictionaries, rather than on the original intent of the people who picked the motto. This is unfortunate as Latin mottos are deliberately over-pithy and over-succinct, to the point that you often really need context to get the point.

  4. Justin: When you say “from somewhere,” do you mean from this somewhere (Pseudo-Vergil, Moretum, 102)? Or were you thinking of the Gentleman’s Magazine?

  5. Ack, yes, I did mean that somewhere, and in fact I had meant to include that very URL as the link! Dunno how I screwed that up.

  6. heh. i find this *incredibly* ironic since i grew up in pittsfield, ma and received my public school education there. in 8th grade, we were given the option of taking either spanish, french or latin. though, we could only take latin if we had placed high enough in math to qualify to take algebra (instead of pre-algebra). i was an A student in everything but math, so i was not allowed to take latin because i was placed in pre-algebra. go figure.

  7. After a bit of websearching I was able to find this rather silly example which had been floating in the back of my head from when I originally read it in the Isthmus.
    I particularly like this quote: “Some could find no example in classical Latin of the two words standing together to make a phrase, and concluded that it was untranslatable.” I guess that means Latin isn’t so much a language as a corpus.

  8. Justin! You did it again! Fortunately, you provided a Googlable quote, so I was able to reconstruct the link. But it’s back to HTML school for you!

  9. This time I definitely put the URL in. Either my browser is allergic to your site, or vice versa. Still, and odd thing to happen even by error.

  10. Perhaps Justin omitted “” in the <a> tag. Let’s see if this works . . . .
    As I suspected, BENIGNO NUMINE was the armorial motto of William Pitt, first earl of Chatham. (I looked in Pine’s Mottoes and the Rietstap Armorial.)

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