We’ve been over this ground before (see this post from 2004 and this one from 2006), but it remains the single most popular search term on the CAMPVS, so it’s worth revisiting. Max Fischer may have saved Latin (“What did you ever do?”), but Miss Cross has left an indelible stamp of bad Latin on film and, consequently, in the minds of many movie fans.
Briefly, “nihilo sanctum estne?” is bad Latin because:
- -ne should attach to the first word of a clause,
- nihilo is an ablative case form used in stock expressions (e.g., ex nihilo), and thus meaningless here, and
- “nothing” in the English question “Is nothing sacred?” is different in sense from from “nihil” in the Latin.
That last part may be the most confusing of the three because it seems so counter-intuitive. So let’s begin by correcting the phrase, and then figuring out what it should mean.
Because -ne attaches to the first word, why not move the whole thing around and start with estne? Then correct nihilo to nihil, and we’ve got a sensible Latin phrase:
estne nihil sanctum?
Superficially this is identical to the English phrase. Word-by-word we read the same thing: “is nothing sacred?”
Read that more carefully now. Is NOTHING sacred?
Is that what we mean in English? Are we asking whether nothingness — the void, the absence of being — is sacred? Certainly not. What we want to know, rather, is whether there is ANYTHING sacred — or not.
The question is asked when something that matters to the speaker is violated in some way. “Well, then, if this isn’t sacred, is nothing else? Is there not a thing in the world that is sacred, that is inviolable, if this isn’t?
Now, is that what the Latin asks? I don’t think so. Again, “estne nihil sanctum?” asks not “isn’t anything sacred?” but “is nothing sacred?” It seems subtle, but there’s a world of a difference.
To get at the heart of the phrase and to keep the idiom close to what people expect in a translation (a task more difficult than you’d think, and the cause of most examples of bad Latin), I’ve worked out a better Latin version. Here are two possibilities, one Plautine (which I consider more colloquial, and more likely to have been spoken), the other more classical (i.e., more literary), though the differences are relatively minor:
Plautine: non quicquam sanctumst?
Classical: nonne quicquam sanctum est?
So Plautus might write the first, and Cicero the second, but then again Cicero would just as likely write O tempora! O mores!, and if you read ahead you’ll see why.
Authority for the expression can be found in Plautus’ Trinummus, 1043, where the slave Stasimus complains of the effects of mores mali, which sounds something like the moral decline that every age sees in the mirror of its own distant past. The problem, as Stasimus sees it, is that custom (mos) trumps the law:
Neque istis quicquam lege sanctumst: leges mori serviunt, mores autem rapere properant qua sacrum qua publicum.
Nothing’s sacred legally by these (morals). Laws follow morality, but morals are rushing off to plunder all things sacred and public.
Stasimus feels that things that should be sacred aren’t treated so, that people lack respect and reverence, and in his moralizing speech he essentially asks in many words what many ask in just a few: “Is nothing sacred?”
Not according to the mores of the time. (O tempora! O mores!)
A note on the difference in the two forms: Plautus only rarely used nonne, and apparently only before vowels. Elsewhere he uses non by itself, or -ne with non elsewhere in the sentence. Prodelision (the loss of the initial vowel in est) is seen orthographically, i.e., sanctum est is written as pronounced: sanctumst.