I first encountered Latin in the last century when I was matriculating at a small college in Fort Worth.
Back then, high school students took Latin courses. On the Ides of March, Latin students dressed up in their togas and marched around pretending to assassinate Julius Caesar. I didn’t take Latin, but Latin was in vogue for a faux intellectual, which I was pretending to be.
Back then, if you read William F. Buckley’s column or Garry Wills in “The New York Review of Books,” you encountered Latin words and phrases. These days, George Will may be the last of the Latin intellectuals. He has the temerity to use Latin words and phrases in his sometimes-abstruse columns that appear weekly in Oklahoma’s premier small town newspaper, the Tahlequah Daily Press.
This week I will try to be as bold as George Will. If you still remember the Latin days of wine, togas, and roses, please comment. I’m taking notes from Eugene Ehrlich’s book “Amo, Amas, Amat and More.”
Immediately this phrase caught my eye: “Ab asino Lanam,” literally, an attempt to “get wool from an ass,” a project doomed to failure. I should have known that phrase epitomized my attempt to reform American spelling.
Back then, people were always making spurious arguments “ab absurdum,” literally, “from the absurd.” In English, it’s called a logical fallacy because it is absurd for you to think disproving your opponent’s case proves yours.
A similar fallacy is “argumentum ad hominem,” which means to “argue against the man.” Destroying a person’s reputation is a common rhetorical device used by politicians, and sometimes it will get you convicted in court, but it too is a fallacy because once again you fail to address the issue.
“Argumentum ad crumenam” is a crummy fallacy. In Roman times, the “crumenam” was a leather pouch that held money. Today we call it bribery. Speaking of money, a cute word from Latin is “cupidity,” which is not a reference to Cupid, but to “love of money.”
“Argumentum baculinum” works well for big kids arguing with little kids. It’s an “appeal to force.”
A logical fallacy often used by people I know well is “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” or in English, “After this, therefore because of this.” Here’s an example: After Elmira came in out of the rain, her mother saw a footprint on the rug. Her mother accused her of tracking up the living room carpet. But wait. This “after this” event only made Elmira a possible enemy of proper housekeeping. The true rascal was Sabrina, the dog with big paws.
Are there no logical arguments? Yes, there is “a priori” and “a posteriori” reasoning. “A priori” is deducing a conclusion from what occurred “previously,” generalizations assumed to be true. “Exempli gratia”: “Dogs love humans. I am a human. Therefore, Sabrina loves me.” However, there can be a catch to deductive reasoning. Some humans are so inhumane even a dog won’t love them.
“A posteriori” is usually called “inductive reasoning.” An Induction derives from observing facts and then making a generalization. For example: Pollsters question a sample of a population and if their sample is representative, can predict that Jay Spitt will win the election. However, he loses because people learn his dog doesn’t love him. It’s a logical fallacy for people to base their vote on this “ad hominem” argument, but that’s politics.
“Ars longa, vita brevis”: Art is long but life is short. A sobering thought. So what should we do since we don’t get any more “per diem”? I say, “Carpe Diem! — Seize the day!”
Bob McQuitty is a professor emeritus from NSU with an interest in the American language.
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