A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Latin Verse for hoi Polloi

Tom Hillman seems to have invented a way to be a visiting professor at an online university. Since the beginning of the Boëthius class, Corey Olsen has held forth on numerous occasions about the impossibility of translating poetry into another language. Tom has taken up the cudgel, and is inserting real Latin into the lectures. Cool! This time it needed a visual aid.  I listen to Academy lectures in my car, so I fired this one up in a browser when I got home to figure out where the colors were. Voilà:

This was a very clear explanation of what was going on, understandable even by your Idiosopher, who learned Latin and Greek from dinosaur names. [1] In response to Jennifer’s question, you can find Boethius’s original Latin at the Perseus Project.

Since I don’t have any contributions to make to the study of classical poetry, I’ll take this opportunity to tell a story of the time I used Latin in public.  I had gone to the doctor about a rash beside my right eye.  The doctor said, “I think it’s periorbital dermatitis, but I’d better ask my partner.”  The partner came in, swear-to-god wearing one of those mirrors on a headband that you see in old movies, inspected me, and declared, “Yes, it’s periorbital dermatitis.”  Well, by that point I’d had a minute to work it out so I asked them, “Did you just say I have ‘skin-around-the-eye disease’?”  They both stood there looking sheepish.  I decided to call that a standing ovation.

[1] “Latin and Greek” is one language to scientists.  We assume the words with an “h” after a consonant like “autochthonous” or “phthalate” are Greek, and all the rest aren’t.


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  1. And not only did you stun and amaze the eye doctors, you also didn’t say THE hoi polloi, for which those of us for whom Latin and Greek are two languages are always grateful.

    • Joe

      I knew this because the bar on campus at W&M was called “Hoi Polloi”. And now I have identified a problem with on-line universities…

  2. Shawn M

    I had an experience like this a few months ago. At a long-overdue eye exam, the optometrist confirmed my suspicion that I needed progressive lenses. She showed me a fancy cross-section of a human eye on her iPad, saying I had finally developed something very common in the over-40 set called “presbyopia.” A funny reminder that anything can sound like a legitimate medical condition when translated into Greek, even “old-man eyes.”

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