The Pope finally sent out his first tweet in Latin from his
Twitter account @Pontifex_ln on
Sunday, January 20, 2013: “Unitati christifidelium integre studentes quid iubet
Dominus? Orare semper, iustitiam factitare, amare probitatem, humiles Secum
The Pope immediately followed it up with translations into
the languages of his other Twitter accounts. He translated the Latin via his
English language account @Pontifex this
way: “What does the Lord ask of us as we work for Christian unity? To pray
constantly, do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with Him.”
But the news service Reuters performed a valuable service by
quoting the University of Cambridge scholar Tamer Nawar, who teased out a more
nuanced translation of the Latin: “What does the Lord command to those wholly
eager for the unity of those following Christ? To always pray, to continually
do justice, to love uprightness, to walk humbly with Him.”
True, Nawar’s translation sounds more clunky in English than
the Pope’s English tweet. But it certainly exhibits an appreciation of all the
subtlety packed into the Latin tweet. For me, it demonstrates why knowledge of
Latin is indispensable. Namely, that it can help one become attuned to
subtleties and nuances of thought that would otherwise be missed.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Pope’s inaugural Latin tweet
is his use of the verb “factitare” in relation to “justice”, since “factitare”
has the connotation of “to make or do frequently; to be wont to make or do; to
Indeed, I’m very happy with the Pope’s first Latin tweet,
but I was in a bit of a sour mood because of the press coverage leading up to
it. That coverage had me wishing for the impossible, that the Pope’s
first Latin tweet would be a sarcastic: “ROMANES EUNT DOMUS”.
If you don’t get the joke, then Google the phrase and watch Monty Python’s famous
Latin lesson, in which a Roman soldier corrects the graffiti of an empire
Generations of unfortunate Latin students have been
traumatized by the sort of bad pedagogy satirized in that scene from Monty
Python. Which is a real shame, since Latin is a glorious language.
Bad teachers have a lot to answer for, especially in this
realm of failing to pass on linguistic and cultural treasures. One famous
example of a suffering student is St. Augustine of Hippo. Although he was a
master of the Latin language, St. Augustine was so traumatized by an abusive
Greek teacher that he gave up on that language and never went on to learn it.
What a loss for humanity, that a genius of that caliber would willfully deny
himself direct access to such a great literary heritage!
Unfortunately, the sad state of linguistic education was
multiplied across the Internet as people anticipated the Pope’s first Latin
tweet. And it was multiplied by the sort of narcotic laziness on the part of
reporters and bloggers that is induced by new media technologies.
discussed on an earlier occasion the stranger aspects of the media buzz accompanying
the Pope’s first English tweets. Certainly, the hype continued during the
run-up to the Pope’s first Sunday tweet in Latin. Unfortunately, the reporters
mangled Latin along the way. Shall we dispatch the Romans to set them straight?
Take the UK’s Guardian
newspaper. It is responsible for propagating an erroneous Latin phrase in its
reporting on the Pope’s Latin Twitter account. Lizzy Davies in Rome wrote this
paragraph for the Guardian,
misquoting Roberto Spataro (secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin
Studies, which Benedict XVI founded last year) and attributing the quote to
“Twitter is a tool which requires rapid communication. In
English you say ‘the corruption of the best one is horrible’; in Latin, three
words suffice: ‘corrupt optima pessima. It is a language which helps to think
with precision and sobriety. And it has produced an exceptional heritage of
science, knowledge and faith.”
Whoa! Wait a minute: “corrupt optima pessima”?
That should be: “corruptio optimi pessima.”
The corruption of Latin is the worst!
I notice that once bad Latin like this is entered on a news
site, it is propagated endlessly by bloggers who cut and paste the juicy quote
onto their own web logs. So now we have had to endure people who should know
bettervarious Catholic bloggers, for examplecelebrating the Latin of their
Church but yet not knowing enough Latin to be able to correct an elementary
Latin error like this.
It’d be interesting to know how Lizzy Davies dropped the
ball on this one. (Did she introduce the error, as I suspect? Or did the
Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano
indeed have an incorrect Latin phrase? A search of the English language edition
online shows that the error didn’t originate there.)
I have some sympathy with the human being who may be blamed
with the error. I myself have had to endure being autocorrected by annoying
computers when I type. I am sure many others also suffer silently in this same
One of my pet peeves is when I type a phrase like “corruptio
optimi pessima” and the computer autocorrects it to “corruption optimi
pessima”. (No, thank you! I do not need that extra “n”! Backspace, backspace,
In addition to zealous bloggers, the incorrect Latin phrase
also has been propagated by numerous sources, including The Huffington Post and NewsMax. Thankfully, by the time The Telegraph reported on the Pope’s first Latin tweet, the
mistake had been corrected and reporter Tom
Kington’s piece got it right.
But a sloppy error like “corrupt” for “corruptio” is
multiplied very quickly over the Internet. Thus, someone who doesn’t know any
better can quickly do a Google search and, seeing the proliferation of the
phrase, wrongly conclude that there is safety in numbers and take the erroneous
phrase as conventional wisdom.
I noted an example earlier this week, in which a certain phrase has been
attributed to G.K. Chesterton (a phrase often accompanied even with a
seemingly credible reference), but which seems to be almost certainly bogus.
Yet, because there is no protest to counter the mimetic multiplication of the
alleged Chesterton quote, it has become a dubiously conventional attribution.
It’s this sort of thoughtlessly mimetic multiplication that
is the main reason why the corruption of “corruptio optimi pessima” bothers me.
In this electric day and digital age, there is just no excuse for that kind of
error. Why? Because anyone who doesn’t know Latin could simply take two seconds
and type three words into Google.
Try it. If you enter “corrupt optimi pessima”, then Google
will ask you: “Did you mean: ‘“corruptio optimi pessima”’?”
It’s simply outrageous that news editors are so lazy that
they can’t even do even the simplest steps of Latin-checking, like trying dumb
old Google. (True, Google delivers the goods in this instance, but I do not
recommend its Latin translator, which is badly unreliable, especially when
going from English to Latin.)
To be fair, I should also note that I found a mistake this
week even on the Vatican news site. But thankfully this one was not in Latin.
On January 18, the
Vatican news agency at news.va incorrectly described the Pope’s “first
tweet” as “Tuus adventus in paginam publicam Summi Pontificis Benedicti XVI breviloquentis
Not true. That Latin sentence is in fact the identifying
description found on the Pope’s Twitter page for @Pontifex_ln. It is not his first
tweet. The first tweet didn’t go out until today.
The Twitter page, which is simply a chronological archive of
the Pope’s tweets, is what is described in that Latin sentence. It can be
translated thus: “Your arrival at the public page of the tweeting of the Supreme
Pontiff Benedict XVI is most welcome.”
Beautiful! Thanks to the Pope’s excellent Latin skills, as
the Pope uses Twitter, Romans everywhere can feel very much right at home.
Some of the sources
consulted in writing this article:
“Pope to Tweet
in Latin”, Vatican news agency.
journalism program launched amid Pope's Twitter success”, Catholic News
vidi, vici. Now the Pope is to Tweet in Latin”, Lizzy Davies in Rome, guardian.co.uk.
Benedict XVI To Tweet In Latin”, Andres Jauregui, The Huffington Post.
Pope Plans to Tweet Followers in Latin”, Bill Hoffmann, NewsMax.
tweets in Latin for first time”, Tom Kington, The Telegraph.