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A Little Latin in Manhattan

A reader comments on my use of a well-known Latin tag thus:

"fortiter in re, suaviter in modo

Hugh, I know that you are a very bright individual, an intellectual teaching people like me who learned thermodynamics instead of philosophy. You do not have to prove to me how smart you are by putting crap like "fortiter in re, suaviter in modo" in your essays. I'm certain that you could be able to find the proper English."

Now let's see. What would be the proper English for "fortiter in re, suaviter in modo"? The 42nd Reserve Squadron of the Royal Air Force may help us, for it takes as its motto the first part of the phrase -- "fortiter in re” – while the rest is left off because the methods of the Royal Air Force's 42nd Squadron could hardly be described as "suaviter in modo.”

At the 42nd Squadron’s website we find:

“The Squadron motto "Fortiter In Re" comes from the old Latin tag: "Fortiter in Re, suaviter in modo" (Sometimes quotes the other way round) which means forcibly (Or resolutely) in deed, gentle in manner.

The motto – that is the “fortiter in re” part -- is translated by Brewer as follows:
’Firmness in doing what is to be done; an unflinching resolution to persevere to the end.’”

Even though the Latin tag is one of those most commonly used in English (every schoolboy would once have known it – and if you disbelieve, look at the reprinted McGuffey’s Readers, or the literature and grammar books most commonly-used in nineteenth-century American schoolrooms) he thinks the Latin phrase should not be used. Why? Because he doesn’t know it, and what’s more, he doesn’t want to look in a book, or even to click once to find out what the phrase means. Why not? Why be so lazy, so incurious?

Why should the language constrict, why should we give up the use of phrases that have been in constant use in English prose, since English prose began? Yes, I know that our leading newspapers dumb down the prose of their contributors (as all those who have ever submitted an Op/Ed know), and that their ideal level of English is that which the average thirteen or fourteen-year-old can understand, and radio and television are worse But why should we participate in this? Why should I, or you, or anyone, become collaborators in this deliberate shrinking of the lexicon, or the limits put on allusions so that language becomes as bland as possible, and where nothing at all can be assumed on the part of the audience. Shouldn’t it go the other way? Shouldn’t we deliberately attempt to widen the vocabulary of readers, to make them look things up by alluding to this or that bit of history, just as one uses such words as “jizyah” and “dhimmi” in order to force people to find out what those terms mean?

Both the active and passive vocabularies of Americans have been shrinking, steadily, decade by decade, from 1900 to 2000. It’s worrisome. A vast dumbing-down is the result of newspapers, radio, and television, all together having decided that their only responsibility is to enlarge the size of their audience for the purposes of attracting advertisers and being able to charge those advertisers large sums, and anything that might be a strain on some readers or listeners or viewers, will be regarded with alarm and antipathy.

I would never change my phrasing in order to appeal to, or satisfy, the laziest common denominator. The poster’s sentence “You do not have to prove to me how smart you are by putting crap like "fortiter in re, suaviter in modo" in your essays” is crude. And to describe as “crap” a Latin phrase that has been in continuous use, by English writers, over at least the past six centuries, and then to be almost prideful of one's not knowing, but dismissing nonetheless, what is one of the best-known Latin tags, is strange.

And the attribution of a motive to me for using such a phrase (“you do not have to prove to me now smart you are…”) is absurd.

It is hard to believe that you think I, or anyone, should obey not the dictates of our own linguistic instincts and conscience, but instead should gauge or weigh or estimate the effect on some posited "average reader" of this or that word or phrase, in English or Latin or some other tongue (but not borrowed yesterday, rather domesticated a long time ago). so that no onerous mental demands are made on that reader. “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo” makes no such onerous demands. Should you decide to look up the phrase "fortiter in re, suaviter in modo" (it will take about ten seconds) and find out what it means, you may start to use it yourself. You may come to agree that it expresses in lapidary fashion something that cannot be expressed so well, in such brief compass, in any other way. You may even come to take pleasure in using it, rather than being offended when others use it.

A little Latin, even or perhaps especially in Manhattan, can go a long way.