ONE MEMENTO MORI, TWO MEMENTO MORI.

I try not to be shocked by what to me are glaring errors of usage in print, soothing myself with the reflection that times have changed, no one studies the classical languages any more, and you can’t tie the present to the millstone of the past. And yet it bothered me exceedingly when I read, in Christopher Benfey’s review of several books about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, the sentence “Her skulls are not mementi mori but resurrections.” It’s true that the plurals of Italian words in -o end in -i, but memento is not an Italian word, it is the singular imperative of the Latin verb meminisse ‘to remember’ (memento mori means ‘remember [that you are going] to die’), and the plural of the phrase in English is the same as the singular. I am pleased to see that the online version of the article has corrected the sentence (“Her skulls are not memento mori but resurrections”); I imagine some harried copyeditor was responsible for the error, since Benfey, the author, is a professor of English. At any rate, this post is a public service announcement, written in the hope that others may be dissuaded from making the same mistake. (N.b.: The word memento by itself is from the same Latin imperative, but the plural is mementos, and that’s OK, because it’s a single word and inevitably became anglicized. Phrases are different.)

Comments

  1. These ignorami!

  2. Ouch.

  3. Those who make this mistake again will be shaken like pendula and left to be assaulted by hoodla.
    But what happened to Hat’s Principle, that to speak English you need only know English? In my variety thereof, the plural of memento mori is memento moris. Are we to follow the Romans like sheep?

  4. Sheeps, surely.

  5. they obviously – and sadly – haven’t watched The Life of Brian with its famous ‘Romani Ite Domum’ painted a hundred times in the forum.

  6. in ‘The Prisoneress of the Caucusus’ Russian comedy, two friends try to bust a gang of kidnappers by pretending to be an emergency medical team giving jabs. Medication was in fact some sleeping concoction. While waiting for the drug to work, one of the friends gives a lecture on self-help, peppering it with ‘memento mori’. Which one of the gang interprets as ‘moment i v more’ – ‘one moment and you’re overboard’.

  7. But what happened to Hat’s Principle, that to speak English you need only know English? In my variety thereof, the plural of memento mori is memento moris. Are we to follow the Romans like sheep?
    The principle holds (and I had meant to say in the post that I would have no problem with a plural memento moris, and in fact was surprised not to find it in the dictionaries), but it is weakened a bit for items like this that are inherently show-offy and foreign; if you’re going to use a fancy phrase like memento mori (which, unlike the noun memento, has not been fully domesticated), you should really know better than to use a flagrantly fake plural like mementi mori. In my view, anyway; I guess I’m not as wild-eyed a linguistic libertine as I’m cracked up to be.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mementote mori.

  9. Ashamed to admit my ignorance, but I’d never heard the phrase memento mori before. Thanks to Hat for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to try and find a way to slip it into my plodding prose sometime.

  10. I’d seen it, but had never got around to finding out exactly what it meant. Nevertheless I can still look down on those who misspell “memento”.

  11. These comments are just a string of non sequitur.

  12. Muriel Spark’s “Memento Mori” is a wicked delight. By the way, on Amazon one edition is misspelled as “Momento Mori.”

  13. Jay McInerney used the phrase cleverly in a novel I didn’t read, The Good Life. From a Slate review:

    The early scenes are strewn with aperçus like this one, reminiscent of how deft and funny McInerney can be at his best—as when he introduces Luke’s wife, Sasha, “a professional beauty” being primped by a corps of assistants: “The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife’s skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink—memento mori—in the jet of hot air … “

    Another (less relevant) paragraph I liked from the review:

    Indeed, there are times in The Good Life when McInerney seems to lose interest in the whole mechanical contraption. Of the (inadvertently hilarious) sex scenes I will say nothing, except that McInerney’s prose goes badly off the rails, there and elsewhere, almost as if he lets his date do the writing while he checks e-mail or opens a bottle of Krug. Women are twice likened to gazelles, the second time a “tawny gazelle,” whereupon a third character is described—on the next page—as “tawny and leonine.” The word “tawny” should appear only once in a given book, if at all; at any rate not a page apart.

  14. “I try not to be shocked by what to me are glaring errors of usage in print, soothing myself with the reflection that times have changed, no one studies the classical languages any more, and you can’t tie the present to the millstone of the past. And yet it bothered me exceedingly”
    That’s the second time in a week we’ve had this. Descriptivist head, prescriptivist heart, just like all the rest of us. The scholar’s condition.

  15. According to Wikipedia there is a musical setting of Alfred Godley’s famous poem
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Motor_Bus
    which might be worth learning for such occasions.

  16. That’s the second time in a week we’ve had this. Descriptivist head, prescriptivist heart, just like all the rest of us. The scholar’s condition.
    Yeah, but of course there’s no real contradiction in having opinions about writing, or even usage, and recognizing that language means what the majority of its speakers use it to mean. The difference between descriptivists and prescriptivists is not that the former abstain from all judgments while the latter judge away; it’s that descriptivists have a proper sense of scholarly authority when it comes linguistic questions — they turn to dictionaries and corpuses — whereas prescriptivists, if they turn to anything but their hearts, it’s to a slim body of extremely shoddy work.
    Not that anyone here doesn’t know all this, obviously. It’s just after spending time with Bryan Garner, I realized these definitions can’t be kept clear enough.

  17. For anyone not familiar with mementos mori here’s somebody’s nice post about Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors and the huge distorted skull in its foreground.

  18. Who’s Bryan Garner?

  19. Descriptivist head, prescriptivist heart, just like all the rest of us. The scholar’s condition.
    If you ask me it’s prescriptivist head, descriptivist heart. That probably means I’m a condescending asshole rather than a scholar.

  20. These comments are just a string of non sequitur.

    “sequitor”, surely.

  21. Surely rather sequuntur.
    Who’s Bryan Garner?
    A lawyer and annoying ultra-prescriptivist who has somehow gotten an oversized reputation as a language expert; his Modern American Usage is taken seriously by people who should know better. From the autobiography on his About page we learn that he got hooked on General Semantics (Alfred Korzybski, S.I. Hayakawa, et al.), then graduated to Eric Partridge and Fowler:

    Suffice it to say that by the time I was 18, I had committed to memory most of Fowler, Partridge, and their successors: the Evanses, Bernstein, Follett, and Copperud. I knew where they differed, and I came to form opinions about whose positions were soundest on all sorts of questions…. While at Texas and Oxford, I attended many lectures by noted linguists who were dogmatically descriptive in their approach. The most bothersome thing was that they didn‘t write well: their offerings were dreary gruel. So I gravitated away from the Linguistics Department and toward English and Classics.

    So there you have it: he’s bored by actual knowledge about language (aka “gruel”) and prefers the heady brew purveyed by ill-informed amateurs.

  22. Oh, and regarding Hat’s Principle, I should have said that it is not violated in the least, because there’s no way the pseudo-plural “mementi mori” could come from a knowledge of English alone. The plural created by an English-speaker would be just what John Cowan uses: “memento moris,” with which I have no problem at all.

  23. “I knew where they differed, and I came to form opinions about whose positions were soundest on all sorts of questions.”
    I love this, it sounds just like something you’d read in an early modern account of theological or philosophical training.
    “The interest might be partly genetic.”
    Ah, the fabled language interest gene!
    By the way, to an Englishman Bryan Garner’s appearance is the very essence of what an American man looks like.

  24. @John Cowan: Nice meeting you here, again. And this time, I am seeing eye-to-eye with you. ‘Memento moris’ has my vote. Perhaps hyphenating the plural? Which would keep the integrity of the Latin phrase. For example (and I am no writer, at all!), it would look something like this: “She was duly chastened, after having received two such memento-moris all in one morning”. Which should also satisfy Hat, in his claim that the phrase has not reached household status in English yet…And please excuse any involuntary idiomatic blunders (I am not native in English).

  25. The plural created by an English-speaker would be just what John Cowan uses: “memento moris,” with which I have no problem at all.

    As a Latin-illiterate English speaker, I’d probably have gone with “mementos mori,” on the strength of its parallel with “courts-martial.”

  26. I might have done the same as David, since I recognize memento as a noun on its own and understood the phrase as meaning “reminder(s) of death,” the first noun of which is pluralized. Luckily memento mori are uncommon enough in my life, so I usually make do with the singular.

  27. The fact that Garner was not a fan of his dogmatic teachers’ prose styles is an odd side issue. Presumably, even if they had been just the kind of wordsmiths that he enjoys (as some linguists surely are), they would nevertheless have been offering “actual knowledge about language” rather than style advice.

  28. Like Joe and David, my first assumption or guess would have been that it was a noun phrase with memento as head noun.
    Now that I know that it is in fact an imperative verb phrase, I am trying to think of native English fixed phrases like that that get used as nouns. I can’t think of any.
    There are those verb-noun compounds like scofflaw, shunpike, spendthrift, and spoilsport, but that has nothing to do with it. I only mention them because I like them.

  29. I can think of one English noun that consists of an English imperative verb something else after it: the flower called ‘touch-me-not’. For the plural, ‘touch-me-nots’ sounds mildly ugly to me, but not one-tenth as ugly as ‘touches-me-not’ or ‘touch-mes-not’ (which also sounds like ‘snot’) or (most logical but also ugliest) ‘touch-us-not’. Would anyone ever say “I’ve been out picking touch-us-not” or any other form except “touch-me-nots”?

  30. “Kids, go and pick some touch-us snot for the dinner table!”
    How about noli me tangeres? Or just nolees?

  31. “Dogmatically descriptive” – talk about confused.

  32. The fact that Garner was not a fan of his dogmatic teachers’ prose styles is an odd side issue.
    It’s astonishing how many odd side issues he works into the short introduction to each edition of his thousand-page usage guide.

  33. Make me saddened, make me sorry:
    mispronounce momento mori.
    Bitter tears bring to my sore eyes:
    pluralize momento moris.
    Murder Ovid, Virgil, Horace:
    smite them with momento moris.
    Better, momentary glories
    ending ‘mid momento moris.

  34. Bryan Garner is also Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe not native Anglo-Saxon roots but is the French phrase underlying the English noun prie-dieu imperative or some other verb-plus-object combination? Both prie-dieux and prie-dieus seem to be in circulation as plurals. There’s a also a noun “holdfast” that describes the part of certain sorts of algae that attaches them to the seabottom or whatnot, although whether the underlying verb+adverb was meant to be imperative is not clear to me.

  36. So what’s the plural of “act two”?
    The play, in essence, has two acts two.
    The play, in essence, has two act twos.

  37. Forget-me-nots. And maybe merry-go-rounds and breakfasts.

  38. rootlesscosmo says:

    one English noun that consists of an English imperative verb something else after it:
    Some open-toed shoes used to be called “fuck-mes.”

  39. So what’s the plural of “act two”?
    Interesting question; my wife and I both find “act twos” more acceptable. (In practice, of course, one would write “two second acts.”)

  40. pick-me-up.

  41. Tilt-a-whirl. (Proposed plural: tilt-some-whirls.)
    Mementote mori.
    But what if these multiple remember-to-dies are all aimed at a single person? “Memento crebro mori”? (Or would that be better aimed at a cat?)

  42. Hat: As soon as you were okay with memento moris, I knew Hat’s Principle was still operative. It was when you were saying that the plural is memento mori on Latin grounds that the ground trembled.

  43. For my part, I thought Hat’s principled rested on how domesticated the phrase was — and that on those grounds, the earth was steady.

  44. Nolite me tangere.

  45. One credo, two credimus.
    Tetrem Nintendis?
    And we can go beyond number and mood to tense and voice:
    You are an ignoramus and an ignorabimus. (‘In mathematics there is no ignorabimus’–Hilbert)
    A place where you go to be seen is a gazebor.

  46. And wouldn’t the Latin plural be mementones mori?

  47. “The plural created by an English-speaker would be just what John Cowan uses: “memento moris,” with which I have no problem at all.”
    Doesn’t work for me. It sounds too much like “memento Morris.” How about “emento-mories”?

  48. mollymooly says:

    There was an internet tennis pundit who insisted the plural of “runner up” was “runner ups” for singles events but “runners up” for doubles. (Probably “runners ups” in mixed doubles.)

  49. My father used to say that one should say The jury is agreed but The jury are disagreed.

  50. My father used to say that one should say The jury is agreed but The jury are disagreed.
    That actually makes sense to me, for the euphony. I normally use “and though” rather than “and although” for “though”-clauses beginning with an “and”: the “dis” in “disagreed” obviates the same alliterative “a”s — which I (and I guess maybe your father) don’t like. Both work semantically, after all.

  51. Well, similar alliterative “a”s.

  52. An Austrian jury, awfully agreed…

  53. J.W. Brewer says:

    The only actual legal usage of the phrase “the jury are disagreed” known to Google comes from a South Carolina decision dated 1906 (where it seems to be a quote from the trial proceedings, not the appellate court’s own manner of writing) and then a few modern usage debates in which people vaguely try to recall what Fowler or some authority may reputedly have said about the propriety of this close-to-non-existent usage. Oh, and then there’s a metaphorical usage of “the jury are disagreed” in a 1920 book titled “Conifers And Their Characteristics” by one Charles Coltman-Rogers, but a sentence or two earlier he has by contrast “the jury seem agreed” (i.e., not “seems agreed”), so there’s no singular/plural contrast.

  54. One credo, two credimus.
    I don’t think we should grant imprimantur or fiant to such recipete for morphological havoc, but impose our vetamus, otherwise we may all find ourselves singing kyrioi eleisato.

  55. “Jury” is followed by a singular copular verb about three times more often on Google Books than a plural one.
    Bryan Garner’s bossy entry (since I brought him up earlier):

    jury. In AmE, this is a COLLECTIVE NOUN, and it therefore takes a singular verb . To emphasize the individual members of the jury, we have the word jurors . In BrE, however, it is common to see a plural verb with jury , just as with other collective nouns.
    Garner, Bryan (2009-07-28). Garner’s Modern American Usage (p. 492). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    I do think I’ve noticed that tendency, re American and British usage.
    A more interesting entry nearby:

    jurisprudent, n.; jurisprude. Jurisprudent, though appearing to be an adjective, is a noun meaning “a jurist” or “a learned lawyer.” Jurisprude, not recorded in the OED, is listed in W3 as a BACK-FORMATION from jurisprudence with the meaning “a person who makes ostentatious show of learning in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law or who regards legal doctrine with undue solemnity or veneration.” The word deserves wider currency, preferably with recognition of its pejorative connotations (with the pun on prude). Yet today most scholars in the field of jurisprudence call themselves jurisprudes without any hint of self-deprecation. LANGUAGE-CHANGE INDEX jurisprude as a nonpejorative equivalent of jurisprudent, n.: Stage 4
    Garner, Bryan (2009-07-28). Garner’s Modern American Usage (p. 491). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    He’s not all bad; he’s just more bad than good, because he never got over his youthful infatuation with a bunch of supercilious amateurs.

  56. “…without any hint of self-deprecation” Bryan Garner, ’84, recognized as the nation’s foremost expert on usage and grammar in American English.

  57. Recognized by himself and his alma mater, anyway.
    I don’t think we should grant imprimantur or fiant to such recipete for morphological havoc, but impose our vetamus, otherwise we may all find ourselves singing kyrioi eleisato.
    *applauds*

  58. I hasten to add that my father was joking, rather in the manner of the Irishman who, when asked whether he thought eether or eyether superior, replied Ayther will do, ayther will do.
    Anyhow, it’s clear to me that he was referring to the semantic clash of a singular entity being said to disagree (with what?) and therefore read the jury in this sense as a sort of plural. AmE does not normally have plural agreement with singular nouns in the manner of BrE, but there are occasional outliers like My family are scattered around the country, where family means ‘family members’.

  59. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, not to criticize anyone’s father’s sense of humor (unless he was uncritically repeating Fowler!), but it’s a bad minimal pair in any event because whatever one may say about the somewhat stuffy-but-still-somewhat-extant idiom “to be agreed” (which as far as I can tell means exactly the same thing in the context under discussion as “to agree,” as contrasted with “to be agreed to” where the subject would have played a different role in the “to agree” version of the sentence), use of “to be disagreed” (instead of just, you know, “to disagree”) seems vanishly rare in any context.

  60. Tom Recht says:

    I bow somewhat guiltily to your applause, Hat, as naturally I mixed up my Greek aorist imperatives. I will now write one hundred times: let thee sing an eleison, let you sing eleisate, let him sing an eleisato, let them sing eleisanton.

  61. My father was never stuffy and is no longer extant: 1904-1993.
    I agree (or am agreed, or am in agreement) with you about the identity of these expressions.

  62. I hasten to add that my father was joking
    Well, shit, I’m embarrassed. I missed a joke looking for my thinking cap.

  63. As tempting as it is to interpret errors in Latin and Greek usage as a problem of modern times, I think people have been making these kinds of solecisms for ages. One could cite who knows how many examples, but personally I like the phenomenon in Russian of people misinterpreting the -tsiya morpheme (forming an abstract noun borrowed from a Latin noun ending in -tionem) for the termination of a female name. So when the Decembrists gathered on that fateful day in 1825 to overthrow Tsarist autocracy once and for all, they had their soldiers start shouting “Konstantin i Konstitutsiya! [Constantine and Constitution!]“, since Nicholas’ brother was believed to be a more progressive choice. However, the soldiers thought that the second noun in that pair was Constantine’s wife, and not the keystone of democracy.

  64. And then there are the (legendary?) Soviet peasants of the 1920s who’d name their daughters Elektrifikatsiya.

  65. Saltimbocca, tiramisu (jump-in-mouth, pick-me-up as far as I can tell).

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