Latin Lounge – the legacy of etymology

I have been brought up with this subconscious rule that if you have to explain your poem – it’s not a very good one. Yet I find myself having posted two poems centering on the concept of “right and left” and feeling like my readers might appreciate some context for this strange obsession. It goes back to my high school years and that rare gift – an inspiring teacher who had the temerity to instill the love of a dead language in the hearts of a bunch of troglodytes from Sprotborough, Scawsby and Skellow (yes, Sprotborough, I did grow up in the village called Sprotborough!) I attended a UK comprehensive school – a non-selective, social-engineering invention of the 70s – but thanks to its grammar school history and a young headmaster determined to make his mark in this challenging environment, the school nevertheless expected a second-language of all its children and a second second-language of those it deemed bright enough. Forty years ago, the majority of the children had never been abroad or seemed likely to have the opportunity, so given the choice between German and Latin it was not surprising that we made decisions based on past feuds rather than future usefulness – after all, Hitler had offended us much more recently than Julius Caesar. Latin was presented as the golden key to an improved vocabulary: an appealing idea to a bunch of kids who aspired to more than their mining and factory-working parents. I owe to Mrs Redfern the knowledge that she was temerarious not timorous to try to implant learning and culture in our tenebrous little minds.

First of all, this remarkable woman was relatively young and pretty (always a help with the boys in the class.) Second, she rewarded our earnest hard work (you should hear a bunch of Yorkshire kids chanting bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello, bella, bella, bella, bellorum bellis, bellis) by assigning the last lesson on Friday afternoon  as “story time”. Here we heard tales of Romulus and Remus who were raised by the lupa (she-wolf) – it was our version of the Twilight saga. We heard stories of agricolae (farmers) and learned that we already knew a lot of Latin – we might not have visited Rome, but we all made the yearly pilgrimage to the Great Yorkshire Agricultural Show in Harrogate. The persevering few who made it through to ‘O’ Level, were invited round to her house for an orgy – kidding! We had a reclining picnic on the lawn, fed one another grapes – and listened to more tales of the wicked Emperors – Caligula (“Little Boots”) and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Proud”).

But the thing that stuck in my mind, more than the personalities were the obscure etymologies – like that fact that sinister in Latin means merely “left-handed” and has negative connotations because the Romans were suspicious of left-handed people. It was preferable to be right-handed or “dextrous” – the left signified bad luck (perhaps owing to the fact that Suetonius tells how Julius Caesar was handed a note warning him of the plot to kill him, but he held it in his left hand and didn’t read it in time to save himself!) It was Mrs Redfern who first put into my mind the thought that when the Roman Legions marched, they didn’t do it to the tune of “left, right, left, right” as British Solders did, but probably chanted “sinister, dexter, sinister, dexter.”  Many years later my own kids were captivated by the same thought – to the extent that my youngest daughter had a pair of those enormous furry slippers with the heads of brown bears who were dubbed Sinister and Dexter respectively. Maybe that’s why I recoil at the TV series about the avenging serial killer Dexter -it’s just wrong – with a name like that he’s meant to be a good guy! So forgive me if you don’t get my unreasoning fear of the left – (we were politically socialist, so I don’t exactly trust the right-hand either) but in my family, we are fortunately all right-handed.


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