The Honest Chambermaid’s Greek.

A couple of days ago the prolific Michael Gilleland posted Algernon Swinburne’s aggrieved letter to the New York Daily Tribune dated January 30, 1874, complaining about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in an interview had called him “a perfect leper and a mere sodomite.” In the course of his missive (which I recommend reading in full if you like eloquent vituperation) Swinburne refers to the “apt reply […] addressed by the servant of Octavia to the satellites of Nero,” and in a follow-up post Gilleland’s correspondent Eric Thomson explained the reference, quoting first Thomas Denman:

While we were calling our witnesses, and I was at Holland House on Sundays and at home in the evenings, anxiously sifting the minutes of evidence, Dr. Parr was my frequent correspondent, pointing out illustrations of many parts of our case from history and classical literature. He earnestly besought me to look into Bayle, and weave into my summing-up allusions to Judith, Julia, and Octavia. The two first seemed to me inapplicable; the third flashed upon me like lightning. In a moment I resolved to make the unhappy wife of Nero my heroine, and indeed, the parallel was perfect. I was deeply smitten, too, with the honest chambermaid’s Greek, but, trembling as to the effect it might produce, I wrote back to ask Parr whether I could venture to bring it forward. He, in reply, at first suggested a method of periphrasis, but, at length, recurring to it in the postscript to a long letter, he burst out, ‘Oh dear, Mr. Denman, I am for the word itself — don’t be squeamish.’

And then Denman’s biographer Joseph Arnould:

Bayle, article ‘Octavia,’ cites the parallel passages from Tacitus and Xiphilin; Tacitus Ann. xiv., c. 60, Xiphilin p. 176; and see also Dion lii. 13. Neither the Latin nor the Greek can be quoted with decency. Tigellinus was presiding at the examination in which the female attendants of Octavia were being tortured to prove their mistress guilty of adultery with a slave. The imputation cast upon Tigellinus by the ‘honest chambermaid’ was of a nameless impurity, which made him peculiar for infamy even in the infamous court of Nero.

Thomson adds, “The word itself in the honest chambermaid’s Greek that could not be quoted with decency was ‘αἰδοῖον’; in the honest chambermaid’s Latin, ‘muliebria’, squeamishly rendered, – or ‘dextrously softened off’ – by translators Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876) as ‘person’.” He cites Dio Cassius’s Greek (‘καθαρώτερον, ὦ Τιγελλῖνε, τὸ αἰδοῖον ἡ δέσποινά μου τοῦ σοῦ στόματος ἔχει,’ which he translates “My mistress’s privy parts are cleaner, Tigellinus, than your mouth”) and Tacitus’s Latin (“castiora esse muliebria Octaviae respondit quam os eius,” which Church and Brodribb softly rendered “Octavia’s person was purer than his mouth”). Ah, for the days when Britons (of the better sort, needless to say) could bandy such allusions and be understood by everyone who mattered!

While I’m recommending Gilleland, I’ll also send you to today’s post, which quotes Martin Luther on languages:

Truly, if there were no other use for the languages, this alone ought to rejoice and move us, that they are so fine and noble a gift of God, with which He is now richly visiting and endowing us Germans, more richly indeed than any other land.[…]

And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which we carry this jewel; they are the vessel in which we hold this wine; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which may God forbid!), we shall not only lose the Gospel, but come at last to the point where we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German.

If we must have peevery, let it be that expansive and eloquent!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Mere sodomite” is indeed hard to forgive.

    I strongly suspect that the chambermaid’s original words were even honester than those attributed to her by these two highly respectable consulars. (Tacitus, in particular, famously doesn’t call a spade a spade. Even.)

  2. If only we had an audio recording! We could learn so much about both vernacular pronunciation and vulgar language.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Very Vulgar Latin …

  4. David Marjanović says

    Well, if everyone who mattered understood exactly and confidently what was meant, there wouldn’t have been any plausible deniability, so I doubt that was actually the case…

  5. John Cowan says

    Perhaps Emerson was half-consciously using mere in its Latinat sense of ‘unmixed, unqualified’. Judges occasionally do things on their mere motion, that is, unprompted by either lawyer. There is also the nickname of the third Emperor, Biberius Calidus Mero ‘drinker of unmixed hot [wine]’, unmixed wine being the drink of barbarians. (For some reason the MS error “Caldius” has been perpetuated in anglophone versions instead of being fixed by an editor; caldus is a known contraction, but metathesis?)

    “On a world where a common table implement is a little device with which you crack the ice that has formed on your drink between drafts, hot beer is a thing you come to appreciate.” —Genly Ai, The Left Hand of Darkness.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Caldius fits the pattern of Latin gentilics; Calidus couldn’t be a clan name, and you need one for the middle term of the aristocratic trina nomina. I think the MS “error” is in fact non-erroneous.

    Proclivi scriptioni praestat ardua.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Second emperor, surely? Unless you’re counting Julius the Dictator (as one might.)

  8. John Cowan says

    As Suetonius, who retails this story, does. But thanks for the explanation.

  9. Denman was given Fox’s rooms at Holland House to prepare the defence of Queen Caroline not during the Delicate Investigation but later in 1820 in the House of Lords. Charles James Fox was a younger son of the first Lord Holland and Holland House became a Whig hangout. In my opinion a bit dreary for a Jacobean house, it was flattened by bombing during WW2 and when I was young it was just a ruin. I think parts have been rebuilt.

    All right, maybe it was ok and it’s the b&w print that is dreary. See for yourself:,_Kensington,_in_1896_and_2014.png

  10. Interesting — the color version does look much more attractive.

  11. On the two first-names thing, it must have been a bit awkward meeting a Hanover king after 1745 when your Christian names were Charles James and you used them both; not as bad as an Israeli PM called Adolf something, but similar.


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