Helluo Librorum.

A piquant post at Laudator Temporis Acti:

Oxford English Dictionary, entry for helluo librorum:

Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin helluo librorum.

Etymology: < post-classical Latin helluo librorum (in some medieval manuscripts of Cicero) < classical Latin helluō HELLUO n. + librōrum, genitive plural of liber book (see LIBRARY n.1).

In early editions of Cicero De Finibus 3. 7, it is said that Cato ‘quasi helluo librorum..videatur’ (‘appeared like a glutton for books’); the modern reading, restored from manuscript evidence by Jan Gruter in his edition of 1618, is ‘quasi helluari libris..videatur’ (‘appeared as if to devour books’).

The OED’s quotation from Cicero is faulty. For videatur read videbatur. The variant helluo doesn’t even appear in L.D. Reynolds’ OCT edition of De Finibus (1998); here is the text and apparatus from Claudio Moreschini’s Teubner edition:

Quo magis tum in summo otio maximaque copia quasi helluari libris, si hoc verbo in tam clara re utendum est, videbatur.

helluari NV BE: helluaris R, belluari AM, belluaris Pmg., helluo PLSY libri R PLSY, corr. P²

Madvig in his critical apparatus records manuscripts LC as reading helluo librorum.

A helluo is “A person who spends immoderately on eating, etc., a squanderer,” and helluor is “To spend immoderately on eating and other luxuries” (Oxford Latin Dictionary). There is no satisfactory etymology.

I suspect we can all identify with helluones librorum in this hattery.


  1. I’ve recently downsized in housing. The question was asked: do we really need to move all these books? When are you going to read them? You don’t even keep up with the new books you buy.

  2. The eternal question, to which no answer will be satisfactory who don’t understand the appeal of books. I have books I’ve owned for decades and haven’t read (some I haven’t even looked at in many years), but every once in a while I discover that a book I bought in the ’90s is exactly what I want now. And no, I don’t want to go see if a library has it!

  3. My Dad — who was an out-and-out electronics nerd from the days when you wielded a soldering iron and would wind your own resistors — kept an Aladdin’s cave in the garage for things that might ‘come in useful’. There was of course no room in the garage for a car.

    Once — in the eighteen years I lived there — once — he could pull out a length of 3/8″ square mild steel: exactly as needed to free the sump plug on my thoroughly Imperial-units Morris Minor. (Metric approximations to 3/8″ were good enough for nuts, but too large or too small for the ‘female’ wotsit in the plug.)

    Of course this justified retaining everything else in the garage just in case it was ‘exactly what I want now’. And of course it was all (and much more) still there when he died forty years later.

  4. We should update an old saying to “people will be people”.

  5. Lars Mathiesen says

    My favourite picture book as a kid was Tobias and His Big Red SatchelHe can’t do without / any one of the things / that he carries about!. (The Danish version was Tobias med Tasken).

  6. De Vaan:

    (h)el(l)uō ‘squanderer, glutton’ [m. n] (Ter.+; the oldest texts have hell-)
    Derivatives: (h)elluāri ‘to spend immoderately on eating and other luxuries’ (Cic.+). PIt. *χelsVwo-.
    In spite of its earlier attestation, helluō is probably a derivative to helluor. This verb suggests an earlier noun or adj. *helluus or *hellua ‘luxury, spendthrift’ vel sim. This would require a preform *χelsVwo-, which yields no promising etymology. Initial h- seems secure, so WH’s etymology from *ē-luō ‘to bathe abundantly’ can be rejected already for this reason. Knobloch 1973: 63 proposes to connect helluō with U. felsva ‘banquet, ceremonial meal’, but U. f- normally reflects *bʰ, *dʰ or *gʷʰ, not *gʰ.
    Bibl.: WH I: 638f., EM 291.

  7. The eternal question, to which no answer will be satisfactory who don’t understand the appeal of books.

    another helluo liborum mentioned the idea of the antilibrary, from umberto eco via nassim taleb, as a way of thinking about our unread books, and i find it fairly compelling.

  8. Yes, that’s quite good:

    The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

  9. David Marjanović says

    De Vaan:

    *f > h was apparently regular in Faliscan, so we could be looking at a loan like the *hilum in nihil, a doublet of filum.

  10. Trond Engen says

    That’s Haliscan.

  11. I moved recently and managed to give away a significant fraction of my books, although I still have a considerable number — all currently tucked up in wine-boxes awaiting my next move to a new permanent residence.

    Regarding AntC’s Dad — I also had, in my old place, a large stash of odds and ends from DIY projects. Scraps of woods, various lengths of electrical cables, all kinds of screws, nails, hinges and whatnot. It seemed silly to pack all this up and pay for it to be moved. I had a handyman come round to take care of a couple of repairs I hadn’t had the time or energy to deal with, and I showed him my collection of wares, thinking he would be eager to take it all away. But he wasn’t interested. I suppose he already had his own special stash of things that would come in handy one day. But he helped me put it all out on the curb for trash pickup.

  12. U. is Umbrian. Sabellian /f/ is borrowed into Latin as such, as in rūfus.

  13. Ay, Halisco!

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