Another quote from Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (I’m glad I’ve already inspired at least one Hatter to start reading it!) that usefully elucidates the meaning of a Latin word and concept; at this point in chapter 2 he’s talking about how for the first half (roughly) of the fourth century, Christians, though tolerated and in some ways supported, were expected to be poor and show it, and he quotes Ammianus Marcellinus on the subject. Ammianus is reproving the excessive ambition and splendor involved in the election of the bishop Damasus as pope in 366, and says Damasus and his rival should have “followed the example of some provincial bishops, whose extreme frugality in food and drink, unpretentious attire and downcast eyes commend them to the eternal Deity and His true worshippers as pure persons who know their place … ut puros et verecundos.” Brown then elucidates the last word of that quote:

It is worthwhile to pay attention to this passage. We do not often see the Christian clergy described from the outside by a non-Christian. Ammianus chose his words carefully. For a Roman, verecundus was a charged word. It summed up the quintessentially Roman virtue of knowing one’s place. Verecundia was a virtue of the subelites. Experts such as schoolteachers, grammarians, and doctors were expected to show verecundia in the presence of their social superiors. For all the indispensable skills they communicated to their patrons, they remained “social paupers” compared with the real leaders of society. They were not to be “pushy.” In Ammianus’s opinion, Christian bishops should be no different. Verecundia, and no virtue of a more thrusting kind, was what suited the clergy best. Clergymen had their niche in Roman society; they should stay there.

Verecundia (the second e is long) is a pretty common word, the source of (among others) French vergogne, Italian vergogna, and Spanish vergüenza, and dictionaries translate it with words like bashfulness, modesty, and reverence. Which is fine — those are accurate translations for various contextual uses of the word — but I love Brown’s “virtue of knowing one’s place,” which illuminates how it functioned in Roman society. (I have to say that I cannot admire that virtue, and I would not want to be an ancient Roman.)


  1. marie-lucie says:

    (the second e is long) is a pretty common word, the source of (among others) French vergogne, Italian vergogna, and Spanish vergüenza, and dictionaries translate it with words like bashfulness, modesty, and reverence. Which is fine — … but I love Brown’s “virtue of knowing one’s place,” which illuminates how it functioned in Roman society.

    I am surprised that the second e should have been long, since it has disappeared in all three languages you cite.

    French la vergogne is a rather old-fashioned word: as far as I know it is only used in the phrase sans vergogne in the context of someone without appropriate social skills, for instance one who would barge into a conversation between persons he does not know, for instance. In older French there was the adjective vergogneux/vergogneuse which I remember from the following quote which particularly struck me at the time. It comes from a play (probably 15 or 16C) about a young woman who fights like a knight, wins a victory, and afterwards refuses an arranged marriage, causing her mother to say (I quote from memory):

    O chose vergogneuse! o l’impudicité
    des filles de présent! ….
    Une jeune pucelle être assez bien hardie
    de vouloir un mari prendre à sa fantaisie!

    O [what a] shameless thing! o the immodesty
    of present-day girls! …
    [For] a young maiden to be bold enough
    to want to take a husband according to her own fancy!

    Another derivative of the same Latin word is the adjective dévergondée (I quote the feminine form because it does not seem to be applied to a boy) which also suggests a girl living an “immodest” or “unchaste” life. The verb se dévergonder (also referring to a girl) means ‘to start living such a life’.

    In Spanish there is a counterpart of French sans vergogne, sinvergüenza, which can be used as a noun meaning something like a crook (others will know a more precise definition). I don’t know about Italian.

  2. sinvergüenza n. ‘scoundrel, rascal’, adj. ‘shameless, brazen, impudent’, say various dictionaries. In Costa Rica, it is also an abstract noun ‘shamelessness’. Italian does not seem to have any word sinvergogna, only vergogna ‘shame’, both in the sense ‘disgrace, scandal’ and in the sense ’embarrassment, shyness’.

  3. Avergonzado is the word English-speakers studying Spanish learn right after they figure out they ought not have said embarazado.

    “I am surprised that the second e should have been long, since it has disappeared in all three languages you cite.” — Is there any trace of a reflex of Latin vowel length in any Romance language?

    Anyway, good word.

  4. I am surprised that the second e should have been long, since it has disappeared in all three languages you cite.
    Does vowel length in Classical Latin influence whether an unstressed vowel is dropped in Proto-Romance? If I recall correctly, in Proto-Romance the length distinction was lost and turned into a distinction of quality, and verecundus / verecundia would have had the stress always on the penultimate, idependent of the lenght or not of the second e, which therefore would have been always pretonic.

  5. Vergonha is the word used by Occitan speakers to refer to the repression of the language – a “shaming” of users of the language through social disapproval or state exclusion from public life.

  6. Make that two, by the way. Though my copy hasn’t arrived yet.

    But as for the virtue itself, it’s partially a matter of categories of application, no? To “know/be kept in/be put in one’s place ” is a loaded phrase with us. It’s not so controversial-sounding to “know one’s limits” or “know one’s self,” or to yield to other people’s superior experience or knowledge. A sense of verecundia that didn’t lump these together with–thank God!–discarded ideas about superiority in pedigree (among other pernicious categories)–doesn’t sound half bad, in moderation. (Thinking of the DFW thread, for example.)

    I guess one could argue that “modesty” already has this, but I do have the sense that the “not overestimating one’s abilities” usage is losing share quickly to that of “not showing off one’s abilities.” Could be wrong, of course, but that is my impression.

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    @ John Cowan:

    Italian has svergognato, which subjectively sounds somewhat literary or high-register. I suppose it works in the feminine for dévergondée but it certainly has a broader meaning in both genders. The abstract noun is svergognatezza, subjectively unusual.

    The very common word that I think corresponds well to sinvergüenza is spudorato. The abstract spudoratezza also sounds perfectly normal to me.

    Come to think of it, we must have kept breaking good Roman manners so much we can still form pejorative adjectives from pretty much all such Latin sources, with varying nuances: inverecondo, indecoroso, indecente, indegno, impudente, impudico … Surely more.

  8. Sinvergüenza! How well I remember that word from my years in Argentina; adults would holler it at kids (and, I presume, each other) at the drop of a hat. I’m not sure it makes much sense to seek a precise meaning/translation; in various contexts it can range from “How dare you!” to “You little rascal!”

  9. “…a virtue of the subelites

    I wondered who these oddly named people might be. The soo-bell-ites? A defunct order, kin to the Carmelites? Natives of Subelia? An old latinate term for a certain rank of household staff?

    Then I saw that if I mentally inserted a hyphen into the middle of the word I could make better sense of it.

  10. in Proto-Romance the length distinction was lost and turned into a distinction of quality

    Specifically: a/ā > a, e > ɛ, ē/i > e, ī > i, o > ɔ, ō/u > o, ū > u. The exceptions are Sardinian, where vowel length was just lost (hence Dante’s wisecrack: the Sardinians “soli sine proprio vulgari esse videntur, gramaticam [i.e. written Latin] tanquam simie homines imitantes”), and Romanian and friends, where o/ō > o and u/ū > u.

  11. In poking about for Dante’s text, I found a loony-tunes LaRouchite article (but I repeat myself) from 1983, on how linguists are the Sekrit Masterz behind “separatism, nationalism, and terrorism.” The idea is that the whole point of describing and promoting local languages is to destroy national ones, and Western Civ along with.

    It is only through such a language [as Dante’s Italian], polished and ordered through poetic expression of universal ideas, that the individual brought up speaking a native dialect can develop his mind to contribute ideas of universal importance to his fellow man. […]

    Destroy national languages, and the progress of human thinking, technology, and science, is destroyed. [Too many commas lead to ambiguity.] That is the ultimate policy objective of the separatist linguisticians. […] By fostering the use of such parochialized and limited dialects, they have effectively condemned entire populations to backwardness. Among the leadership strata of separatist organizations, local dialects are used as veritable brainwashing programs, to maintain top-down control over hard-core terrorist components.

    Mind you, all this comes from a movement whose beliefs include a return to Bretton Woods economics, a railroad tunnel under the Bering Strait, opposition to balanced budget laws, the Anglo-Dutch conspiracy against the U.S. (with Queen Elizabeth as the head of a major drug ring), the Bush family as former and present Nazi supporters, quarantine for people with AIDS, the harmlessness of CFCs and the non-existence of the ozone hole, and the Satanic nature of tuning musical instruments to A=440 as opposed to the Verdi pitch of A=432 (in which middle C = 256, conveniently).

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Hans, JC, thank you for reminding me of Proto-Romance phonology.

    Geraint: Occitan vergonha: in spite of the spelling, which suggests a pronunciation identical with that of Italian vergogna, in most of the Occitan area the pronunciation would be the one suggested by the former (French style) spelling “vergougno”. The quasi-official “modern” spelling is actually a return to that of the medieval troubadours.

  13. It’s like the question of whether the Modern Scots word for ‘house’ (Middle Scots hous) should be spelled hoose or house. The former is easier for those who have been educated in English, whereas the latter reflects the fact that historic /ou/ > /u/ in Scots rather than /au/ as in English, and is consistent with the spelling of Scots-only words like houzle ‘take snuff’ and souch ‘sound of wind or water’.

  14. Interesting — obvious now that you point it out, but I hadn’t thought of it. My Concise Scots Dictionary enters it under house, and I approve.

  15. Vergüenza is a highly significant feature in Spanish social life, and it seems to me that it retains something of that “virtue of knowing one’s place”. The extremely common No tiene vergüenza means he/she knows no shame, but also that some essential sense of social propriety is missing.

    Vergüenza ajena is key too: to feel embarrassed on someone else’s behalf (it has to be someone with whom you identify in some way). Young women blush beetroot with embarrassment while witnessing a frend make a bad academic presentation; others will wince at some Spanish politician’s misuse of English in a foreign forum: ¡Qué vergüenza!

  16. For me, sinvergüenza instantly brings to mind Mexican telenovelas, which are still broadcast round these parts, but were at the height of their popularity back in the 80s and 90s. Sinvergüenza definitely seemed like the most popular insult on these shows, making an appearence every few sentences, though cualquiera was also a strong contender.

  17. For an extended discussion of the Latin, see Between Respect and Shame: Verecundia and the Art of Social Worry, chapter two

  18. (Chapter ONE, sorry.

    Chapter two is “Fifty Ways to Feel Your Pudor.”)

  19. Stefan Holm says:

    Verecundia reminds me of my senior high school lessons in philosophy. We, students of natural sciences, were (thanks God) obliged to take lessons even in the humanities. One of five major invalid types of arguments was argumentum ad verecundiam, to ‘argue with the help of authorities’. That meant that it was okey to refer to Albert Einstein in discussing the theory of relativity but not in discussing politics, litterature, religion or anything else, where he wasn’t an expert.

    In my textbook this type of false arguments was number four out of five false ones (illogical ones like: ‘a fox is red – red is a colour – so, a fox is a colour’ is another story). The list was like this:

    1. Argumentum ad hominem
    2. Argumentum ad populum
    3. Argumentum ad bacculum
    4. Argumentum ad verecundiam
    5. Argumentum ad ignorantiem

    Need I add that the world is crowded with all five?

  20. “Argument by forelock-tugging” might work there.

  21. “Verecundia” is still in Spahish dictionnaries.

  22. “Argument from (irrelevant appeal to) authority” is the usual English form.

  23. I know, but it’s not much fun.

  24. rootlesscosmo says:

    A recent novel, “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter, is set partly in a Ligurian village–the sixth of the Cinque Terre–called Porto Vergogna. (Some of the action takes place at the Adequate View Hotel there.)

  25. So the Five Villages actually number six? Hmm. WP lists Bonassola, La Spezia, Lerici, Levanto, Porto Venere, Sarzana, Volastra as nearby villages, with the second best known in these parts for being one end of the La Spezia-Rimini line, the boundary between Italian proper and Gallo-Italic varieties. North and west of the line, we have -s plurals and (mostly) intervocalic voicing, as in los lobos ‘the wolves’; south and east of it (including Romanian), we have vocalic plurals and no such voicing, as in i lupi ‘id.’

  26. So the Five Villages actually number six?

    I’m not sure whether you’re being po-faced (it’s so hard to tell around here!) or whether you’ve missed the implicit genre of the Walter novel; the name “Adequate View Hotel” should provide a clue if so.

  27. Well, the Cinque Ports in England number seven, or fifteen, or forty-two, depending on how one counts. The Seven Sisters, on the other hand, are only six, whether you mean stars or Indic languages. On the other hand, I had to look up po-faced to find out that whatever I was, that wasn’t it.

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