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December 7, 2018

Return of the Dreadful Phrases
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:59 AM * 41 comments

As it says in Ecclesiastes, of the making of books there is no end. And Seneca is (dubiously) said to have told us that errare humanum est1 (to err is human)2.

A side-effect of these two universal truths is that this thread is onto its third iteration.


  1. sed perseverare diabolicum, but to persist [in error] is diabolical.
  2. Alexander Pope added “to forgive divine”, which might argue agains the existence of these threads.3
  3. On the other hand, Augustine said da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo, give me chastity and continence, but not yet.
Comments on Return of the Dreadful Phrases:
#1 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 08:47 AM:

I did not grow up in a tradition that studied St. Augustine (or, for that matter, Jesus Christ, Moses, or Mohammed).

What was he referring to with "continentiam"? In context, I doubt he was talking about the ability to voluntarily control urination.

#2 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 08:50 AM:

"Continent" means pretty much "able to control oneself". The meaning has narrowed.

#3 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 08:56 AM:

Well, it's control, and it's control of the same organ...it's basically a synonym for chastity. It's a tautology.

#4 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 09:26 AM:

Is this politics-free? Because our not-president says we have "BOARDER" problem, which means that the Third Amendment is needed, perhaps for the first time ever.

#5 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 09:26 AM:

From Adam-Troy Castro's FB. "Spotted in the ARC of a really outstanding upcoming novel: 'The glasses on the bridge of his knows.'"

#6 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 09:27 AM:

OtterB@5: not the best song Kansas recorded.

#7 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 09:48 AM:

Can I get a citation for that Seneca quote? I cannot find it.

And I think it is vanishingly likely that he would use the word "diabolicum", which gets into Latin as a transliteration of New Testament Greek.

So maybe he said something like "errare humanum est" somewhere, but I strongly suspect that second half comes much later than Seneca.

I feel bad for being so pedantic. But then again, the "dreadful phrases" threads are natural display-cases for pedantry, so maybe it is less out of place here?

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 10:18 AM:

Oldster, I cannot find a citation for it, but it is universally attributed to Seneca.

Diabolicum is not a common Latin word, but the Greek word διαβολικός means "slanderous" or "lying". (It's also not common; I can see no references to it before the common era in Perseus.

I'll amend the entry to say it's attributed to Seneca.

#9 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 10:30 AM:

I'm afraid that between us we are illustrating the saying of St. Ambrosius, "to err is human, but to make a big deal pointing out other people's errors is, like, being a jerk."

I'm pretty sure it was St. Ambrosius?

I could be wrong. As Martin Luther said to the Pope in his 95 theses, "yeah? well, you know, that's just like, your opinion, man."

#10 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 10:58 AM:

Oldster, you are correct; it is Ambrosius who wrote errare humanum est, sed volgo errores aliorum indicare equidem crudelis est.

It's in De Officiis Ministrorum, Book IV, De Mediis Sociabilibus.

#11 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 11:29 AM:

ah, yes: the de Mediis Sociabilibus. Part of his projected summa, left incomplete at his death, de Tela Totius Terrae, vel de origine mali humani.

An amazing visionary, Ambrosius! He it was who first laid down that golden precept, troglodytae non pascendae sunt.

#12 ::: Don P. ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 01:09 PM:

I saw "a cry and shame" yesterday.

#13 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2018, 02:07 PM:

just seen:
the pompous circumstance and ceremony

#14 ::: crazysoph ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 02:02 AM:

I'd just like to say that the conversation between oldster and abi, #7-11, is exactly what I love about reading things here. I learn so much, so much!!

Crazy(and very grateful to everyone here)Soph

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 06:35 AM:

Oldster wins, well, an internet for Tela Totius Terrae.

#16 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 11:38 AM:

absolutely no credit deserved for TTT, because that is simply its official name in Vatican Latin:

https://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tela_totius_terrae

One of their many articles about the Interrete:

https://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interrete

I want to thank abi for our exchange of bad Latin, but so far as "learning" anything goes, Soph, I would take it all cum Drano salis.

(e.g., I made a beginner's mistake by writing "pascendae" instead of "pascendi"; "troglodytae" looks like a feminine ending, but it's a masculine noun. First-year Latin fail.)

#17 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 12:25 PM:

16
nauta is Latin for "sailor" - but it's a feminine-form noun. Languages are weird.

#18 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 12:54 PM:

In Othello, when Roderigo says, "I will incontinently drown myself," he's not indicating any particular body part but general lack of self-control.

#19 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 12:58 PM:

P J Evans @17
Nauta (sailor), poeta (poet (surprise!)), and agricola (farmer) are all masculine, but they are first declension, which means they are very old words indeed.

#20 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 01:04 PM:

Russell @18 --

oddly enough, "incontinently" here has a different etymology from the more familiar word "incontinent", where the "in-" means "not".

"incontinently" as an adverb of time is from the phrase "in continenti tempore," i.e. in continuous time, without any interval, where the "in-" represents the preposition "in" instead of the negative prefix.

So English gets two adverbs "incontinently," one being the negation of "continently," and the other meaning "right away."

But PJ Evans put it more concisely at #17

#21 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 09:58 PM:

Total derail here but: I had a wonderful Latin teacher, who was the one that got me hooked on "Useless Information". Decades after high school, when I started working at my current job, I discovered that she had worked there also, some years earlier. Had made enough of an impression that, when she passed away, they named a meeting room after her. (Which was weird the first time I encountered it: "What, was that—? Surely not! Oh yeah, it is. Huh." Also was the one who made them (and I can fully visualize her twisting appropriate arms (figuratively speaking, of course)) name our local Craigslist-equivalent, "Agora."

She wasn't just a Latin teacher, she was a Latin geek.

#22 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 08, 2018, 10:13 PM:

Jacque @21 --

She sounds like a wonderful person.

And I am sure she did not twist any arms at all.

As a good Latinist, she simply promoted the alignment of brachial incentives.

#23 ::: MC Alcock ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2018, 08:58 AM:

Apologies for being OT...

15+ year follower, 2nd time poster, but given HW's passing, I find myself struggling to contextualize the awfulness of the Bush clan, and looking for the "Aristocrats" post on this site. It was great and has stuck with me for over a decade, but I can't find the link. Any help appreciated. Thanks!

#24 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 09, 2018, 10:05 PM:

MC Alcock: Maybe yes, maybe no, but the search phrase:

bush aristocrat nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/

produces results that are worth revisiting in their own right....

#25 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 09:38 AM:

The winner of Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction award has been announced for this year. If you ever had any doubts about James Frey's writing ability, they've been well and truly rewarded. The Guardian has excerpts from this year's all-male list of nominees.

#26 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 12:29 PM:

P J Evans @ #17: There are several others, but they're not in first-year Latin books because they're naughty. Look up "mentula" (a name Catullus gives to an enemy in a famous scabrous poem).

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 01:56 PM:

26
I have, actually, a bilingual edition of Catullus.

#28 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 09:11 PM:

I thought diabolical meant havign two bollocks

#29 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 09:48 PM:

The indispensable Notes & Queries is on the case.

It looks as though two different authentic quotes got conflated:
In the 1st century BC, Cicero said “Any human can make a mistake; it takes a fool to persist in his mistake”;
(Cuiusvis hominis est errare; nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare. Philippics xii.2.5)

In the 5th century AD, St. Jerome said, “To sin is human, but to lay traps is diabolical.”
(Peccare enim hominis est, insidias tendere diaboli. Adv. Ruf. iii.33)
(Cf. “lead us not into temptation etc….”)

But neither one said “to persist in error is diabolical.”

And thank heavens for that! Many of us persist in error without supernatural aid of either kind.
(To keep up with my perseverated errors would exhaust a troop of devils.)

So it is deeply unclear when this formulation arose, sc. errare human est, sed perseverare diabolicum.

I see it listed in the Italian Wikiquotes,
And German Wikiquotes.

But neither has any citation for that formula — they give no source or provenance.

We can get a good hint of its date from the fact that no one seems to have said even the first half — even just the “errare humanum est” part — until 1745.
(See the citations in N&Q: things like it, true, but not that phrase.)

I suspect the conflated version is much less than 300 years old.
For all that these records show, it may have been coined in the last few years; a trap laid for the unwary by someone who thought himself devilish clever.
I myself don't think the conflation *is* devilish clever. But I do think it would be foolish to persist in spreading it further.

#30 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: December 10, 2018, 09:53 PM:

Oh! And note also that the indefatigable Sonnenschein who contributed the note in N&Q betrays no awareness of the "to persist is diabolical" formulation.

That's more good reason to think that it is quite recent, i.e. post 1904.

#31 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2018, 01:49 AM:

Wait, la.wikipedia.org? Really? Though I suppose I probably use Google Translate as much to cheat at Latin as I do for more current languages.

Also, that Ambrosius did make a fine salad.

#32 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2018, 01:56 AM:

rm@4 The "boarders" missspelling reminds me of the Grateful Dead album's working title about "Ugly Roomers from the Mars Hotel".

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2018, 12:12 PM:

both also vied into conspiracy theories

Oy. I don't know if that one is autocorrupt or user error.

#34 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 11:26 AM:

A somewhat different kind of error, from a Newsday article about building bulkheads along a shoreline that was hard-hit in Sandy:

"...to protect and ensure the city's very inhabitability and the continuity of life on the barrier island."

#35 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 01:02 PM:

me (34): No, wait, I'm getting my negations confused. The 'in' in 'inhabitability' is not a negation; that would be uninhabitability'. So that statement I quoted is fine.

Nevermind. /Litella

#36 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 02:20 PM:

Mary Aileen (35) I read that several times and couldn't see what was wrong with it but figured it was just me. :-) Sort of like the "inflammable" problem.

#37 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 03:02 PM:

OtterB (36): Yep! Flammable/inflammable, habitable/inhabitable. Same-same. Sorry for the confusion.

#38 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 10:08 PM:

Trying to sew maximum confusion

#39 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2018, 11:25 PM:

@38, now that would be an interesting cosplay...

#40 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2018, 04:20 PM:

"You don't want to tip your hat too early...."

#41 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2018, 02:09 AM:

Somebody referred to "getting soak and wet" from the rains we're finally having more of here. That's what happens when you tip your hat too early, I guess.

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