Posted by Sarah » Add Comment »
I know, I know, it’s been a while. New semester.
Last night President Bush gave his State of the Union address (by the way, isn’t it funny that the corresponding governor’s speeches are called ‘State of the State’ addresses?), and both the NBC commentators and President Bush himself called the platform from which he spoke a “rostrum.” The fellow classicists in the room and I were puzzled, because in Latin, a rostrum is a beak of a ship. The speaking platform in the Forum from which greats like Cicero and Ceasar spoke was the rostra, the plural of rostrum, because it was adorned with ship’s beaks to commemorate naval victories. So, dutifully, I looked the word up in the OED to see what the current English usage was. The first entry describes the Roman rostra as an English word, and then goes on to say, “The singular form, though strictly incorrect, is the one commonly employed in this sense (i.e., the sense of a speaking platform).” So I guess it’s okay to say “rostrum” when describing a place for public speaking, since it’s in the OED and all, but it sure sounds weird when you know it means a ship’s beak. This meaning does still exist in English, as well, and is found in the lower recesses of the entry on rostrum in the OED, so it’s not just that Latinists are remembering something wholly lost in English.