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!)


  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.)

  11. John Cowan says:

    A personal male God with an impersonal or semi-personal force of some sort associated with him that is personified as female is not unknown in IE-land: consider Shiva/shakti and Jupiter/Juno. Juno is personal in the late materials we have, but there are two plausible etymologies for it, and one is from *dyúh₃onh₂- (or its zr grd equivalent) ‘heavenly authority’, which sounds quite impersonal. If true, Zeus/Dione would be another such pair. In this context, then, Jupiter’s numen would be his (female-identified) power: the noun is neuter, but that doesn’t signify.

    Then there is God the Father and the Holy Spirit….

    (TIL that mulier ‘wife’ may be a variant of melior ‘better’, meaning first ‘the better woman’ and then ‘the best woman (of the household)’. Other explanations are mollior ‘more tender’ or a connection with mulgere ‘milk’.)

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Creator in the traditional Kusaasi scheme is called Win, which like the cognates in the surrounding languages doesn’t belong to the distinctively human noun class; although there are human-reference nouns in the class it does belong to, they are mostly explicable as having been transferred from the distinctively-human class for phonological reasons, which doesn’t apply to Win. The self-same word is used for the spiritual essence of anything, including but not limited to people.

    You greet an person sitting quietly alone with (Bareka) nɛ sɔnsiga! “Blessing on your conversation!”, the implication being that they are conversing with their own win, which seems to imply that such a win is a “person” (in our terms, anyway.) But the kind of wina that are the focus of everyday religious activity are not regarded anthropomorphically at all: they’re much more numina than dei. They are associated with places and spiritually powerful objects like trees. Just to confuse the issue even further, though, trees are regarded as “personal” in the traditional worldview, and referred to with animate pronouns …

    I suppose the moral is that “person” is itself a surprisingly culture-bound concept.

  13. You’re reminding me of how thrilled I was by my first anthropology class in college — people were so much more diverse than I had ever imagined! (It turned out to be my only anthropology class, because the teacher said such idiotic things about language.)

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wished when I lived in that area that I’d had more (or any, really) anthropological knowledge. I faked it as far as I could by listening a lot and keeping as open a mind as I could.

    The best account of the the local regional culture in many respects that I’ve seen to date remains Ernst Haaf’s Die Kusase from the early 1960’s. He was a doctor in the same hospital as me, and evidently had an extraordinary ability to get people to explain things to him about their culture. His accuracy is such that I can piece together nearly all of his many phrases in Kusaal, which he recorded with remarkable fidelity given that he evidently didn’t know the language and there wasn’t even an accepted orthography at that time. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that he was still remembered with affection thirty years after he had left.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    I suppose the moral is that “person” is itself a surprisingly culture-bound concept.

    Gosh, next you’ll be saying that reality is socially construed. Which, of course, is only another construction that can be put on what you say about “person”.

    You merely have to take care that the construction doesn’t suddenly tumble about your ears while you’re dining. A traditional way of doing that is to invite only like-minded friends to dinner.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reality is socially construed.

  17. Well, that was fast. Too fast, in fact. I wonder whether to construe it as a tease. I suppose I should let it pass on probation for now. Can’t always be rocking the pillars of cognition.

  18. PlasticPaddy says:

    Watch yourself, Samuel Johnson may come back from the dead to kick a stone…

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    Tempted though I am to relapse into Sphinx-like silence in the vain hope of being taken for profound, I will instead relent and say that the key word there in my view is construed.

    I don’t at all think that reality is determined by our understanding of it (though this does evoke the uncomfortable question: “How could you tell?”)

    Johnson’s argument, though fun, is of course bollocks (if I may be forgiven a traditional Scholastic technical term.)

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    I don’t at all think that reality is determined by our understanding of it (though this does evoke the uncomfortable question: “How could you tell?”)

    It’s Pyrrhonian Scepticism, all good fun. Not for the faint of heart, natch. I’m convinced it makes one a nicer person. Unfortunately the final results are not yet in as concerns meine Wenigkeit.

    Speaking of key words – I decided that “constructivism” misleads the etymologically unwashed masses into thinking “determined”, so I avoid it now in favor of “construe” as being more infinitive.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    “How could you tell?” In a free moment you might review Kant’s twistings and turnings on these matters. He ended up with the Ding an sich. You have to admit it’s a good punchline – just mysterious enough to leave you in great expectations of a sequel, Son of Kritik.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    It reminds me of poor old Gödel; though he demonstrated that most formal problems in any system broad enough to at least include arithmetic cannot be resolved as true or false within this system, he did believe that the solutions existed: it’s just that we have no way to get at them.

    You have to ask whether such a belief can actually be said to interact at all with the world, and if not, what you mean by claiming to possess such a belief (it was in fact reflections along these lines that led to me first deciding, in my teens, that I was mistaken in supposing I believed in God. I still think my logic was good.)

    A variant of the “but what difference does it make” argument underlies that clever Bishop Berkeley’s position which Johnson deliberately failed to understand. It was regarded as uncontroversial at that time that (say) colour was not in fact inherent in objects, but generated by the interaction between object and observer: Berkeley just pointed out that if you can do that with colour, there’s no reason not to do it with extension, and ultimately the “object” as such becomes redundant.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Good point about Gödel. From my reading over the years, I get the impression there are many mathematicians who think that way. It doesn’t really matter, in my view. They’re all grist to the mill of … hmm, not “progress” – lets call it “time”.

    One of my favorite books is The Pilgrim’s Progress. I see things as follows: some fall by the wayside in their teens, others almost reach the Pearly Gates but are waylaid by cultish thieves in the night. A few get in, only to remember suddenly that they left the oven on at home.

  24. John Cowan says:

    I suppose the moral is that “person” is itself a surprisingly culture-bound concept.

    I may have told the story of Gale arriving at her therapy appointment looking very shaken. The therapist wanted to know what had happened, and Gale described (probably in tears) how she had seen a cat struck by a car and hurled high into the air, then crashing down in ruin.

    The therapist said, “You’re reacting as if you’d seen a person killed.” When I heard the story that evening, I knew that therapeutic relationship was doomed. We cat people know that cats are persons; not human, of course, but persons. (Gale eventually left, but only after some months of deterioration; starting over with a new therapist can be a very daunting prospect.)


    “Complete bollocks”, one of my favorite Wikipedia meta-articles. But I actually think Johnson’s argument is pretty good: not logically, of course, but rhetorically.

    Pyrrhonian Scepticism

    I’m pretty sure, reading what little we know about Pyrrhon, that his skepticism was of the ordinary scientific sort: don’t claim you know, because all you have is a theory more or less well confirmed. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” He extended this beyond the physical sciences: his key term ataraxia is not ‘calmness’, still less ‘impassiveness’ or (Ghu forbid) ‘apathy’; it’s ‘non-attachment’.

    Gödel […] did believe that the solutions existed: it’s just that we have no way to get at them

    Most mathematicians do. But the alternative possibility (h/t Hofstadter) is that there actually is a finite proof of ~G. In that case, G is unequivocally false as well as unprovable, and there is no bifurcation of number theory at all, since neither G nor ~G can be added as an independent axiom. Which means supernatural numbers are inherently part of that undivided theory, and so are their reciprocals, which are infinitesimals. And in that case, Newton and Leibniz were right after all, and Johnson was quite right to refute Berkeley!

  25. PlasticPaddy says:

    For muller I have not seen *mal+yos “very/rather small” proposed; it would be like “babe” or “chick”, but maybe it is impossible to schwa an a in a Latin first syllable. Etienne would know. I also found Germanic *magaths, Celtic *maguessa for maid, these would go back to a PIE root for “young”, I suppose, but the Latin reflex would not be l for g or g-t.

  26. @John Cowan: The truth of falsehood of the Gödel sentence G is in some ways less complicated than people make it, and in some other ways, it is more complicated. For a countable first-order logical system S, G is a sentence that is equivalent to a statement that “G is unprovable in S.” This statement is, by any reasonable reckoning, true. The system S contains only a countable number of possible proofs, so if there is a proof of G in there, we could eventually find it. Since we cannot prove or disprove G (in first order logic), no such proof exists; therefore, G is indeed unprovable under the rules of S. However, this last argument cannot be framed in the first-order language of S itself.

    That is the sense in which things are simpler: G is unquestionable true in S. Where things get more complicated is when we can append either G or ~G as a new axiom and still have a consistent system (assuming S was consistent itself—not always a trivial assumption!). The relative consistency of ~G as an axiom seems to contradict the statement that G is actually true, but it does not actually. Adding ~G to S creates a new first-order system S’, and G is not equivalent to a statement that “G is unprovable in S’,”—unprovable in the new system. So there is no contradiction, although it still may seem weird that a statement G that is true in S can be false in an extension of S. However, that should not really be too surprising; since G is a negative statement, adding to the theory can make it false. If I say, “There are no women in this room,” that is a true statement, but if I extend the system under study—either in space, to “There are no women in this building,” or in time “There have been no women in this room in 2020,”—the statement becomes false. So a statement G, which asserts that there is no proof of something (G itself, in this case) can likewise be made false if we pass to a larger system S’, which contains more possible proofs, because one of the new proofs may be a proof of G.

  27. Separately, something that this discussion thread reminded me of, was that I had recently come across a couple of individuals claiming that falsificationism, as described by Popper, had been declared philosophically dead or unsound. When I looked into this, I found that the apparent basis of the claim was that Popper’s solution to the demarcation problem (of what is scientifically meaningful and what is not) of falsifiability was unsound, because the falsifiability criterion was itself not falsifiable.

    I am sure that whatever jackass philosopher came up with this argument thought that he was being incredibly, deviously clever, but it honestly made me pretty angry. That argument is really only slightly more advanced than, “If you love falsificationism so much, why don’t you marry it?” I am no fan of Popper (as I have noted here more than once previously), but he really did codify a useful criterion for deciding if some line of inquiry was scientific or merely metaphysical. He was not especially good at applying that criterion in practice—at least in the interesting edge cases where having a precise demarcation criterion would actually be useful—and he spilled far too much ink on this one idea, but the basic idea was a very good one and fundamentally sound. The reason that a rule of falsifiability does not need to be itself falsifiable is that it not a statement about the nature of the world, but belongs to the realm of epistemology. Like statements about uncountable sets, it is not an assertion about the nature of the universe, but a purely logical rule, which can nonetheless be used to distinguish potentially meaningful empirical statements from useless ones.

  28. I am sure that whatever jackass philosopher came up with this argument thought that he was being incredibly, deviously clever, but it honestly made me pretty angry.

    Yes, that’s right up there with “If you linguists think standard language is arbitrary, how come you write in it, huh?”

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Science theory is part of philosophy, not of science. That’s why it’s called “philosophy of science” and why it doesn’t need to be falsifiable. 😐

    (Also, there’s a lot of parsimony hidden in falsification.)

  30. John Cowan says:

    Here’s what Hofstadter actually says: better to critique that than my rendering of it. This is after he explains that either G or ~G can be added as an axiom, which is what you are addressing above:

    For instance, take this question: “Is -G finitely derivable in TNT [i.e. first-order predicate calculus plus natural numbers and equality]?” No one actually knows the answer. Nevertheless, most mathematical logicians would answer no without hesitation. The intuition which motivates that answer is based on the fact that if G were a theorem, TNT would be ω-inconsistent, and this would force supernaturals down your throat if you wanted to interpret TNT meaningfully — a most unpalatable thought for most people. After all, we didn’t intend or expect supernaturals to be part of TNT when we invented it. That is, we — or most of us — believe that it is possible to make a formalization of number theory which does not force you into believing that supernatural numbers are every bit as real as naturals. It is that intuition about reality which determines which “fork” of number theory mathematicians will put their faith in, when the chips are down.

    But this faith may be wrong. Perhaps every consistent formalization of number theory which humans invent will imply the existence of supernaturals, by being ω-inconsistent. This is a queer thought, but it is conceivable. If this were the case — which I doubt, but there is no disproof available — then G would not have to be undecidable. In fact, there might be no undecidable formulas of TNT at all. There could simply be one unbifurcated theory of numbers — which necessarily includes supernaturals. This is not the kind of thing mathematical logicians expect, but it is something which ought not to be rejected outright. Generally, mathematical logicians believe that TNT — and systems similar to it &mdash are ω-consistent, and that the Gödel string which can be constructed in any such system is undecidable within that system. That means that they can choose to add either it or its negation as an axiom.

    I’ll add for the benefit of those who need it what ω-inconsistency is. Suppose that for some formula F, you can prove that F(0) is true, F(1) is true, and so on forever, but you cannot prove “For all natural numbers n, F(n) is true.” So the truth of this last statement (call it G) is open, and we can add either “G is true” or “G is false” to the theory. If we add “G is false” we get ω-inconsistency: F is true for 0, for 1, for … and yet there are numbers for which it is not true: these numbers (which are not negative or fractional or imaginary or any other such well-known notion) are called supernatural.

  31. Fair enough. If supernatural numbers exist, then my argument for the truth of G does not hold. A great many other theorems also fall to pieces as well.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Oh, that kind of supernaturals. WP has an article on another kind.

    John, how do you even take the inverse of such a number? Naturals that are not ordinals… are they necessarily greater than all ‘mundane’ naturals? Obviously that would make the notional inverse non-zero but less than any real number, thus infinitesimal.

  33. @Lars Mathiesen: The supernaturals are indeed all greater than the canonical natural numbers. The supernaturals are defined by their prime factorizations, which look like the factorization of ordinary naturals, except that they have an infinite number of factors. Moreover, you can append to this theory additional supernatural primes, in additional to the canonical primes, which lead to even more supernaturals.

    However, you cannot really define consistent theories of division (or even addition!) of supernaturals. Multiplication is easy to define, just adding the powers of the prime factors, but that’s about the only operator available with them.

  34. John Cowan says:

    I’m reasonably sure that the supernaturals you linked to and the ones we’ve been talking about are the same.

    Here’s Hofstadter again on addition and multiplication:

    There is one extremely curious and unexpected fact about supernaturals which I would like to tell you, without proof. (I don’t know the proof either.) This fact is reminiscent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. It turns out that you can “index” the supernaturals in a simple and natural way by associating with each supernatural number a trio of ordinary integers (including negative ones). Thus, our original supernatural number, I, might have the index set (9, -8, 3), and its successor, I + 1, might have the index set (9, -8, 4).

    Now there is no unique way to index the supernaturals; different methods offer different advantages and disadvantages. Under some indexing schemes, it is very easy to calculate the index triplet for the sum of two supernaturals, given the indices of the two numbers to be added. Under other indexing schemes, it is very easy to calculate the index triplet for the product of two supernaturals, given the indices of the two numbers to be multiplied. But under no indexing scheme is it possible to calculate both.

    More precisely, if the sum’s index can be calculated by a recursive function, then the product’s index will not be a recursive function; and conversely, if the product’s index is a recursive function, then the sum’s index will not be. Therefore, supernatural schoolchildren who learn their supernatural plus-tables will have to be excused if they do not know their supernatural times-tables-and vice versa! You cannot know both at the same time.

  35. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It is not obvious to me that the supernaturals of an ω-inconsistent theory are necessarily the ones that Steinitz invented / defined, and the WP article for those does not talk about number theory or indexing schemes with triples.

    I haven’t read the Hofstadter book (I think — which one is it?), but if he starts off with Steinitz’ definition then of course ω-inconsistency is possible. It’s the other direction I’m wondering about.

  36. PlasticPaddy says:
  37. John Cowan says:

    GEB chapter 14. The first quotation is at pp. 452-53, the second one at p. 449 of the first edition.

  38. From that talk page (thanks, PP): “Hofstadter’s discussion of ‘supernatural numbers’ comes on pp. 451–455 of the 20th Anniversary Edition of GEB. My very uneducated guess is that the entities he’s talking about are what Wikipedia calls hypernatural numbers, i.e. hyperintegers.”

  39. Lars Mathiesen says:

    The hyperintegers make more sense, at a glance. There is a link from that WP article claiming that the hypernaturals (non-negative hyperintegers) constitute a Skolem-type non-standard model of Peano arithmetic and that article states that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem can be used to prove the existence of such models. Still nothing about indexing schemes. (However the hyperreals are a field so division is well defined — contra Hofstadter’s remark — and any hyperinteger that is not an integer will indeed have an infinitesimal as its inverse in that field).

    I did read GEB 40 years ago, but this part would not have been interesting to me back then and my copy is long gone (and it was not the Anniversary Edition anyway). If the quoted sections are all that Hofstadter wrote about what his supernaturals actually are, I don’t think we’ll get any closer.

  40. David Marjanović says:



  41. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Jerzy Łoś. I just like how his name looks.

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