Whimsical post#21: ‘Its all Greek and Latin to me’

I once had a senior colleague at a venerable institution where I used to work a few years ago, a respected colleague who had the habit of terming most of what I said “Greek and Latin” for he..I mean them whenever it was from any of the pitif few languages they had an acquaintance with. Apart from being quite very disconcerting, this response was also markedly erroneous. But then, it is unfortunate but true in these times where people wear their ignorance like a proud badge that this phrase – existing from mediaeval times but popularised after its occurrence in a Shakespeare play – should be used in such a cavalier fashion for people who should be commended, if not emulated. (Well the ones like me, I mean…if you get the drift)

However, what brought this issue up in my fertile, massive and constantly churning brain was this clip I saw from one of my favourite TV programmes I saw when I was young – the hugely comic but satirical tales of the Rt Hon James ‘Jim’ Hacker, a minister of the Crown, and Sir Humphrey Appleby,the Permanent Secretary in Hacker’s department, and their seesaw relationship which lasts even when Hacker somehow manages to ascend to the premiership and Sir Humphrey becomes the Cabinet Secretary. But then how can we forget Bernard Woolley.

The Principal Private Secretary to Jim Hacker in the Yes Minister episodes as well as Yes Prime Minister episodes (and thus appearing in every episode), Bernard is very precise with how the English language (among others) is used and this is sometimes carried to the extreme, becoming one of the main motifs of the series given Hacker is addicted to mixing metaphors 9some examples will be shortly furnished).

Lets take an example of Bernard’s virtue (what many people would quibble unnecessarily over) in the episode called The Bed of Nails, in the times when Hacker is still a minister. Lets not get sidetracked by what the plot was and so on… it is not essential to what I will present for you in my support of my contention that the unfortunate people who dismiss whatever they do not understand as either of these classical languages… or the former if we want to stay true to the correct usage of the metaphor… do not know what they are missing.

Without anything more I go to it….. Just pay attention to Bernard’s explanations… thats all I can say

Hacker: Sir Mark thinks there might be votes in it, and I do not intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister, that you are looking a Trojan horse in the mouth.
Hacker: You mean if we look closely at this gift horse, we’ll find it’s full of Trojans?
Bernard: Um, if you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside. Well, the point is that it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan horse to the Trojans, so technically it wasn’t a Trojan horse at all; it was a Greek horse. Hence the tag “timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”, which, you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, or doubtless you would have recalled had you not attended the LSE.
Hacker: Yes, well, I’m sure Greek tags are all very well in their way; but can we stick to the point?
Bernard: Sorry, sorry: Greek tags?
Hacker: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” I suppose the EEC equivalent would be “Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus”.
Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister.
Bernard: No, well, the point is, Minister, that just as the Trojan horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It’s obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one can use such a participle (bewaring that is). And it’s clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in “-o”, because the Greek first person also ends in “-o” – although actually there is a Greek word timao, meaning ‘I honour’. But the “-os” ending is a nominative singular termination of a second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course, though actually Danaos is not only the Greek for ‘Greek’; it’s also the Latin for ‘Greek’. It’s very interesting, really.

It’s very interesting, really…… I concur with Bernard.


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