I’m reading Erich Auerbach’s article “Figura” (and every time I read Auerbach, I think I should be reading more Auerbach; I still haven’t made my way very far into Mimesis [see this LH post]), and I came across a quote from Varro that I liked so much I have to share it: “fictor cum dicit fingo, figuram imponit,” which Auerbach translates “The image-maker (fictor), when he says fingo (I shape), puts a figura on the thing.” (He has earlier rendered figura “plastic form.”) I’ve always been a sucker for varying verb stems (as a young Latin student, I used to go around muttering “fero ferre tuli latus,” enjoying the knowledge that latus was once tlatus and showed the zero-grade form of the root of tuli), and the conjunction of fic-, fing-, and fig- in one sentence was deeply satisfying to me.
On the next page, Auerbach, still discussing Varro, says:

We have, as he says in De lingua latina (9, 21), taken over new forms of vessels from the Greeks; why do people struggle against new word forms, formae vocabulorum, as though they were poisonous? Et tantum inter duos sensus interesse volunt, ut oculis semper aliquas figuras supellectilis novas conquirant, contra auris expertes velint esse? (“And do they think there is so much difference between the two senses, that they are always looking for new shapes of furniture for their eyes, but yet wish their ears to avoid such things?”).

Needless to say, I liked that as well.


  1. Jeffry House says

    I read Mimesis a few years ago, and wondered that such depth of knowledge could be concentrated in one person. It is a lovely read.
    A very-slightly-related question: How does “fingo” become “pretend” in Spanish (fingir) and feign in English, when it’s apparent origin is the less devious meaning, “make”?

  2. Figura has some nice English relatives: dough, lady, dairy, paradise.
    (It’s not like you to pass on OCR snafus, Hat: read formae, figuras, novas.)

  3. I assume it followed the path that I’m seeing “make” take even now: “You’ll have to make nice with the customs officials…”

  4. It’s not like you to pass on OCR snafus, Hat: read formae, figuras, novas.
    I blame the flood of spam that was coming in as I was composing it, which eventually drove me to shut off all commenting for a while, a tactic which occasionally proves effective (and seems to have done so in this case). Anyway, fixed, and thanks!

  5. marie-lucie says

    How does “fingo” become “pretend” in Spanish (fingir) and feign in English, when it’s apparent origin is the less devious meaning, “make”?
    I don’t have a reference for this, but it seems to me that the evolution derives from the fact that when a person (such as a sculptor) makes a representation of someone, they are not necessarily making a true reproduction. A statue of someone may represent the maker’s (or patron’s) idea of the person, rather than be a true likeness (caricaturists are masters of this). Thus make > distort > pretend.
    The French cognate of Spanish fingir is feindre, which also means ‘pretend’, as does English feign, from the French plural stem feign-. English feint (as in ‘deceptive fencing maneuver’) comes from the French noun une feinte, itself derived from the past participle feint(e) ‘feigned’.

  6. My immediate take was “the liar, when he says ‘I lie’, is putting on a mannerism”. After consulting my dictionary, that still seems reasonable, but then I have not read the context so I might be totally wrong.

  7. Jeffry House says

    I am sure that is right, Marie-Lucie. TR’s link refers to the English word “fiction” as being a derivative of fingir, which I think confirms your point.
    But there should be some remnant, somewhere, of the older,
    non-fictional, non-feigning, non-feinting meaning, I think!

  8. Hat: From my father to me to you: pigo, pigere, squili, gruntus and flio, flire, itci, scratius (which needs the Italian pronunciation that my father’s Catholic school taught). By the way, when and where did the fourth principal part of Latin verbs become the perfect passive participle in America, when it’s the supine everywhere else? Anybody know? The supine is the more general case, as verbs that cannot be passivated still have one.

  9. John Emerson says

    Mimesis is one of the very few lit crit books I admire, if that’s what it is anyway. I have read that he wrote it when he was in exile in Turkey with only his personal library, so everything is based on pr
    imary texts.

  10. Isaac Newton famously said Hypotheses non fingo, which might be translated into 21st-century English as “I don’t invent speculative explanations.” Saying “I feign no hypotheses”, as Newton himself might have, would be doubly misleading.

  11. marie-lucie says

    JC: when and where did the fourth principal part of Latin verbs become the perfect passive participle in America, when it’s the supine everywhere else?
    It is not just in America: in my youth that form was called le participe parfait passif and the other one le supin (I have forgotten the definition of that one). (I doubt that those forms have been renamed, but Latin is not as popular a subject as it was at the time – “popular” is not quite the word, since it was compulsory).
    Hypotheses non fingo; I agree with your modern translation. But perhaps “make up” would convey the possibly ambiguous meaning of fingo.

  12. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @ Jeffry House
    In Spanish there’s heñir, to knead.
    Heñir and fingir are one of many pairs (dobletes) in Spanish composed of a popular word (voz patrimonial) that follows the rules of phonetic transformation from Latin to Spanish, and a learned word (cultismo) that reprises the Latin spelling.
    Often the presence of such a pair implies that the Latinate word has been introduced during the Renaissance. I don’t know if this is true of fingir and I don’t know where to check either.
    However, the same pair exists in Catalan, where fènyer means to knead and fingir means to feign. The dictionary reports that indeed the former dates from the 13th century but the latter only from the 15th.

  13. I think the older tradition in the US was to pack in a little bit of extra information by using the past participle for transitive verbs, and the supine for intransitive ones. At least, that’s how I learnt it in the 50s.
    BTW the Varro quotation translates very nicely into German: wenn der Gestalter “Ich gestalte” sagt, gibt er der Sache ihre Gestalt.

  14. Sigh. Another spam flood is coming in, so I’m going to shut everything down for a while and hope it abates. My apologies, and I’ll reopen comments before I go to bed.

  15. “fictor cum dicit fingo, figuram imponit”, which Auerbach translates “The image-maker (fictor), when he says fingo (I shape), puts a figura on the thing.”
    That doesn’t make sense, try as I may to figure (!) it out. What is Varro/Auerbach talking about here ? Verb stems are all very well, but no matter what “image” is taken to mean, it is not the case that “making an image” follows from, or is equivalent to, saying “I am making an image”.
    Sure, when a sculptor says that he is sculpting something, he “puts on” an appearance of doing what his profession gives one to expect that he would be doing anyway – whether he is actually doing something, or suffering from marble block. So the image-maker, when he says “I shape”, is shaping an image of himself (as doing something), not of “the thing”, which may not exist. He is simply saying “you go figure” as to whether he is shaping or dicking off.
    Even if we try to characterize a performative speech act as “creating a (verbal) image of what I will do”, for instance when someone says “I promise to do X”, it is not the case that “I say that I promise to do X” is the same as, or implies, having promised to do X.

  16. The link to Mimesis in your old post is dated; Princeton apparently just published a new edition with an introduction by Edward Said, even available on the Kindle (and now on my Amazon Wish List).

  17. Now I’ve got it, I think. What Varro’s Latin must mean is: “when a maker says that he is making something, then [he is saying that] he is imposing a shape on something”.
    The dicit bit adds nothing of value to the idea, and requires (in English) a shitload of present participles to cancel any impression that “saying” is being linked to “doing”. It would almost suffice to say: “when a maker makes something, he imposes a shape on it”.

  18. So I suppose the cash value of the Sentenz is: making is merely shaping, and don’t let nobody tell you differnt.

  19. Re tuli [t0]latus — my favorite Greek verb: βλώσκω, ἔμολον, which looks like it’s suppletive but isn’t, βλ- having developed from μλ-, as the perfect μέμβλωκα shows.

  20. You can follow the evolution of meanings of fingo here:

  21. That’s neat. According to [Pape: Griechisch-Deutsch]: nyn m’episkepsai molon = come and visit me.

  22. “I don’t invent speculative explanations.”
    My grandmother knew one thing about gin rummy: “Don’t speculate” was her motto. I’m not sure what she meant by it, though. I didn’t know she was in such august company.
    On the other hand, she would put in obviously wrong answers in crossword puzzles just to be done. This sounds very non-Newtonian.

  23. marie-lucie says

    “fictor cum dicit fingo, figuram imponit”
    I don’t think that the use of dicit ‘he says/he is saying’ means that the verb is a performative here. “Performative” verbs (declare, swear, and other verbs of saying) do not just refer to an action but uttering such verbs in the proper context is itself a performance of an action, which is intended to have real world consequences: I declare you man and wife, pronounced by a priest or other person authorized to “perform” marriages, in the presence of witnesses, means that the couple is from now on united in marriage, which confers on them and their union a specific legal status; I swear to tell the truth, the whole trugh and nothing but the truth imposes an obligation on the part of a juror, and not conforming to this obligation can have very serious legal consequences. On the other hand, the sculptor’s act of saying fingo does not create the work! Obviously, when saying fingo he is talking about his work in general terms. The author’s sentence is an elliptical one: to be totally clear it should say When a sculptor says ‘I make/fashion’ [something], he means that he imposes a shape [on the material].
    CP: Thank you for these examples! It is interesting that Spanish heñir and Catalan fényer both mean ‘knead’. This suggests that fingere originally referred to handling soft materials such as dough and clay, which are easy to form into whatever shape is desired. Referring to making figures, the meaning of these words was later extended to work in hard materials such as various kinds of stone, while keeping its original meaning when referring to dough (at least in some parts of the Romance domain).
    Bill W: Thenk you too! I see that this online dictionary mentions ‘fashioning’ out of various materials including wax and clay as well as stone, all in the same sentence. But the techniques for the soft and the hard materials are quite different: anyone can play around with wax or clay (like “play dough”) using only their hands, but sculpting marble surely must have come considerably later in the history of techniques. So “kneading” is probably one of the earliest meanings.

  24. sculpting marble surely must have come considerably later in the history of techniques
    This follows from the hierarchy of kneads.

  25. Newton: “I don’t invent speculative explanations.”
    empty: On the other hand, [my grandmother] would put in obviously wrong answers in crossword puzzles just to be done. This sounds very non-Newtonian.
    If by non-Newtonian here you mean something like “given to inventing speculative explanations”, then it doesn’t seem quite right to say that your grandmother was non-Newtonian with crossword puzzles. As you describe it, her ploy was willful, not speculative, and its purpose was not to explain anything, but to put paid to the puzzle. Perhaps she “invented” the just-to-be-done entries themselves, but then Newton too was inventive.

  26. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @ Marie-Lucie
    An argument in support of your hypothesis could be that fictilis in Latin, and thence fictile in English and French, fittile in Italian, fíctil in Portuguese, means something made of clay, or capable of being molded like clay.
    Two vaguely related facts.
    1. The OED entry for fictile reveals that Carlyle if no one else wrote fingent in an impeccably classical sense:

    Ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures.

    2. The kneading meaning seems be pan-Iberian. At least some Galician dictionaries report both meanings for fingir/finxir, and the 1913 De Figueiredo Portuguese dictionary reported two separate lemmas for fingir: the main one for feigning and the second as a regional Northeastern (trasmontano) usage for kneading.

  27. Marie-Lucie: Latin has different words for “knead”:
    and subigo:
    And “knead” doesn’t seem to be one of the specific meanings of fingo listed in Lewis and Short.
    So the evolution of the reflexes of fingo seems to have occurred in the Romance languages (although Romance might have preserved features of Latin that didn’t make it into the classical language preserved in texts).

  28. I remember about ten things from Latin class many years ago, but one of them was that “he says” and “one says” are the same conjugation. Could the sentence actually be saying that when the maker makes something, one says [it can be said that] he imposes a shape on it?

  29. Ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures.
    The fictile entry has that, which I couldn’t understand yesterday. What kind of plastic is fingent ? Should it be “fingently plastic” ?
    Just now, in the fingent entry, I found the same quote except for a comma separating fingent and plastic. Now we’re talkin !
    It is to say: man is the most fashionating and fashionable of creatures.

  30. plastic here (the beginning of The French Revolution discussing the comings and going of royalty) means one who models.

  31. Well, fingent = “given to fashioning”, and plastic = “formable” = “fashionable”. That’s why I rephrased the pair of adjectives as “fashionating and fashionable”. Surely we don’t disagree that this is what Carlyle is saying?:

    Such a changed France have we; and a changed Louis. Changed, truly; and further than thou yet seest!—To the eye of History many things, in that sick-room of Louis, are now visible, which to the Courtiers there present were invisible. For indeed it is well said, ‘in every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.’ To Newton and to Newton’s Dog Diamond, what a different pair of Universes; while the painting on the optical retina of both was, most likely, the same! Let the Reader here, in this sick-room of Louis, endeavour to look with the mind too.
    Time was when men could (so to speak) of a given man, by nourishing and decorating him with fit appliances, to the due pitch, make themselves a King, almost as the Bees do; and what was still more to the purpose, loyally obey him when made. The man so nourished and decorated, thenceforth named royal, does verily bear rule; and is said, and even thought, to be, for example, ‘prosecuting conquests in Flanders,’ when he lets himself like luggage be carried thither: and no light luggage; covering miles of road. For he has his unblushing Chateauroux, with her band-boxes and rouge-pots, at his side; so that, at every new station, a wooden gallery must be run up between their lodgings. He has not only his Maison-Bouche, and Valetaille without end, but his very Troop of Players, with their pasteboard coulisses, thunder-barrels, their kettles, fiddles, stage-wardrobes, portable larders (and chaffering and quarrelling enough); all mounted in wagons, tumbrils, second-hand chaises,—sufficient not to conquer Flanders, but the patience of the world. With such a flood of loud jingling appurtenances does he lumber along, prosecuting his conquests in Flanders; wonderful to behold. So nevertheless it was and had been: to some solitary thinker it might seem strange; but even to him inevitable, not unnatural.
    For ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent, plastic of creatures. A world not fixable; not fathomable!

  32. Is there an edition with that comma? Because the OED also has this sentence s.v. plastic A. (noun) 1.b..

  33. marie-lucie says

    Stu, which Louis is Carlyle referring to? It sounds like he is talking about his own time, but the reference to “conquests in Flanders” and the description of the vast entourage needed for transporting, feeding and entertaining the court on the move sounds more like the reign of Louis XIV or XV.

  34. marie-lucie says

    “fictor cum dicit fingo, figuram imponit”
    “he says” and “one says” are the same conjugation
    This doesn’t sound right, unless “one” here translates an actual Latin indefinite word. Without such a word, the passive dicitur would be used (‘… is said’).
    Could the sentence actually be saying that when the maker makes something, one says [it can be said that] he imposes a shape on it?
    No. Fictor has to be the subject of both dicit ‘he says’ and imponit ‘he imposes’. My Latin is rusty but I think that your sentence would be a translation of something like fictor cum fingit, figuram imponere dicitur , literally ‘the fashioner, when he fashions, is said to impose a shape’. (Latinists, correct me if I am mistaken).

  35. David Marjanović says

    It’s crazily late, I’m all but too tired to giggle over the German implications of fictor… so here’s from a closed thread:

    Not to be confused with this Gipfel [link to WP:Croissant]. I guess a croissant does resemble a mountain range.

    Oh no, it’s Latin cippus sent through the High German consonant shift outside of Switzerland, yielding Austrian Kipferl (diminutive*), and then imported into Swiss dialects that lack plain [k], yielding Gipfeli.
    * BTW, there’s no etymological r in the suffix; like the Swiss one, it’s cognate with Standard German -(e)lein.
    …Oh, wait, there’s one thing in this thread I can comment on quickly. I was taught five forms for each Latin verb: 1st sg. present active, 2nd sg. present active, present infinitive, 1st sg. perfect active, perfect participle. Fero, fers, ferre, tuli, latus 3 – some textbooks give the masculine form, some the neuter one. The supine almost never occurs in the texts we read (mostly poetry, plus Caesar & Cicero); we pretty much ignored it.

  36. MMcM: Is there an edition with that comma?
    Here is a screenshot of the fingent entry in my digital OED. There you see a comma between fingent and plastic in the sentence from The French Revolution. In my quote above from a Gutenberg HTML edition, I myself added a comma in that sentence because I still find the sentence unintelligible without it.
    marie-lucie: in the very first chapter here, I see that Carlyle is talking about Louis 15.

  37. The book opens in 1774 as Louis is dying. His style often adopts the present tense for the historical events it is retelling.
    The original of this first volume was inadvertently burnt up by Harriet Taylor (later Mill)’s maid (as Newton’s notes were by Diamond) and had to be recreated from memory after the other two were finished.

  38. MMcM: without a comma in between, “fingent plastic” sounds sorta pleonastic to me. If “plastic” here is a noun meaning “modeller”, and “fingent” an adjective meaning “given to modelling”, then “the most fingent plastic” means “the modeller most given to modelling”. But “most” with respect to which other modellers ?
    Also, on that reading “the most fingent plastic of creatures” raises the question whether “creatures” is objective, subjective or don’t-know: “The creature modeller most given to modelling”, or “The modeller most given to modelling creatures” ?
    It would be difficult to justify an application of the lectio difficilior potior principle to a case of missing comma in an age of multiple mass-printed editions.

  39. I meant: “The modelling creature most given to modelling” or “The modeller most given to modelling creatures” ?

  40. It’s not that important to me anyway. At least I now know what fictile and fingent mean, and can wield them with a will at every opportunity.

  41. That extra comma was in the 1896 OED and subsequently until removed online in June 2012.

  42. the OED also has this sentence s.v. plastic A. (noun) 1.b.
    OK, I now concede the reading of “plastic” as a noun meaning “modeller” (from lat. plasticus). Should have followed that reference immediately !

  43. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @ David Marjanović
    My memory of high-school Latin classes is fading, but if some texts seem to report the neuter past participle they are probably reporting the supine.
    In Italy, I believe it’s universal to report the five forms in the order fero, fers, tuli, latum, ferre. That’s certainly the way I recall it. I don’t recall being drilled that the fourth form was the supine, but it must be because of eo, is, ivi, itum, ire. I’ve just had the surprise of discovering that some sources, presumably American, report the future participle iturus instead.

  44. marie-lucie says

    In Latin-French dictionaries I think that the order was FERRE: fero, tuli, latum, the last form doing duty for past participle and supine (as in the Italian tradition, per GP above). I was surprised to see latus here instead of latum. I don’t remember the 2nd singular indicative present form being listed separately.

  45. David Marjanović says

    My memory of high-school Latin classes is fading, but if some texts seem to report the neuter past participle they are probably reporting the supine.

    Could be, but I think at least one of them actually called it the past participle.

  46. In the OED:
    “Schoolboys believe that Gerunds and Supines will be abolished, and that Currant Tarts must ultimately come down in price.” [Sydney Smith]

  47. marie-lucie says

    Are there any Latin verbs for which the past participle and the supine have different stems? I think not, and the ending -um is one of the possible endings for the participle, since the participle works like an adjective and agrees with a noun, here a singular neuter noun.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Plus, since the supine is a lot rarer than the p.p., calling the listed form “supine” is much less informative for the student than calling it “past participle”.

  49. Jeffry A. House says

    It snowed on the Sphynx today, or in Spanish, “el esfinge”. Both words belong in this thread, don’t they?

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