Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category


The Weather Channel gets classical

The Weather Channel has decided to name winter storms, and the choices are sometimes hilarious.

Here are the classical choices, with the official explanations:

Athena: The Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspirations, justice, mathematics and all things wonderful.

I think one of my former students ‘wrote’ this after doing a quick web search. Gods are always summed up as ‘the god of X,’ which quickly becomes ‘X, and, Y, and Z,’ and on and on, often including synonyms and bizarre interpolations.

Brutus: Roman Senator and best known assassin of Julius Caesar.

Okay. But why not mention both Lucius and Marcus Junius Brutus? For that matter, why Brutus, and not a real monster, like Briareus?

Caesar: Title used by Roman and Byzantine emperors.

Is there anyone in the world who thinks of the title Caesar before the most important bearer of the name?

Draco: The first legislator of Athens in Ancient Greece.

Come on! Make it fun! Talk about the fact that he gave his name to the adjective ‘draconian’ because his penalties were so harsh. As harsh as a wicked winter storm? Hmm?

Euclid: A mathematician in Ancient Greece, the father of geometry.

Well, he lived in Alexandria, not on the Greek mainland. But make a connection … maybe to the geometric patterns in snowflakes.

Helen: In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the daughter of Zeus.

Ah, yes: Helen, the one and only daughter of Zeus. If only there was an interesting story or two one could tell about her.

Jove: The English name for Jupiter, the Roman god of light and sky.

Right. Because it’s not the Latin root or anything (Iuppiter, Iovis, Iovi, Iovem, Iove). Also, the god of light and sky? This sounds like vaguely barbarian religion in bad fantasy fiction. Or a song by Sting.

Luna: The divine embodiment of the moon in Roman mythology.

Also known as the moon.

Magnus: The Father of Europe, Charlemagne the Great, in Latin: Carolus Magnus.

Why Charlemagne and not Pompey? And why not mention that it means big or great, which might apply to a storm?

Nemo: A Greek boy’s name meaning “from the valley,” means “nobody” in Latin.

I suppose there could be a modern Greek name derived from τὸ νέμος, but I think it’s an erroneous claim for the source. Clearly they were thinking of the film Finding Nemo, and latched onto whatever vaguely classical connections they could find. They got lucky with the Latin.

Plato: Greek philosopher and mathematician, who was named by his wrestling coach.

While the Academy did apparently bear a sign barring the “un-geometried”, I think it’s a stretch to call Plato a mathematician.

Saturn: Roman god of time, also the namesake of the planet Saturn in our solar system.

Saturn is linked with Kronos, but Kronos (the god) is not chronos (time).

Triton: In Greek mythology, the messenger of the deep sea, son of Poseidon.

Is Triton a messenger? I thought he was a sort of nebulous sea god (or gods, the Tritones), blowing a conch to calm the sea.

Virgil: One of ancient Rome’s greatest poets.

Ahem: one of the world’s greatest poets. And it’s spelled Vergil. This isn’t the 19th century.

Zeus: In Greek mythology, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and the gods who lived there.

So who ruled over the rest of the world?



Since we didn’t use any snow days this year we’re having a second little spring break next week, and after today’s mini-test on verb tenses I was going to play a little Latin Jeopardy. But the kids wanted to watch Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths. I couldn’t find the DVD, but luckily Netflix on the iPad wasn’t blocked on the school’s network.


Pseudologus: Bowra in the buff

Christopher Hitchens, who (I must confess) is a personal hero, recently used an anecdote about the venerable (and notorious) C.M. Bowra (Slate: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal‘), who was a real-life member of the real Order of the Phoenix (unlike that Harry Potter character).

The anecdote is one of those great stories that people like to tell about distinguished types. It’s humorous and humanizing and suits his reputation as a wit. And as one of those stories that people like to tell, Hitchens has told it before (Slate: ‘The Cult of ID‘):

At Oxford, where two rivers meet, there is a private stretch of the bank (or there used to be) called “Parson’s Pleasure.” Since Victorian times, this shaded resort was reserved for male dons who wished to swim and sunbathe in the nude. A barrier prevented any stray punts or boats from interrupting this idyll, and women and girls understood that this retreat was off-limits. One day, however, while the river was higher and faster than usual, a ladies’ boating party was swept through the barrier and into the all-male backwater. Shrieks and giggles from the boat, and a sudden, protective downward reaching of the hands on the part of all bathers on the bank. All but one. The late Sir Maurice Bowra, Hellenist and epigrammist, raised his hands to shield his craggy visage. There they all stood or sat until the fair intruders had sailed past, whereupon a general outbreak of sheepishness occurred, punctuated by Bowra saying: “I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known by my face around here.”

You needn’t look very hard to find the anecdote here and there, with the quotation changed, or even the subject. It’s been told of others, for example Dundas, whom ‘Mercurius Oxoniensis‘ provocatively referred to as ‘the late Master Robin Dundas, of Christ-Church and Parson’s Pleasure.’

(Try googling +”Parsons’ Pleasure” +”my face”. Then try the same search on Google Books, though not all references include the supposed words of the don.)

In Leslie Mitchell’s biography, Maurice Bowra: A Life, we find a very good explanation, that includes this:

Wadham men found it ‘pleasant to hear all the Jowett stories being told about you.’

The Parsons’ Pleasure story is briefly mentioned as one of the many apocryphal tales ascribed to Bowra as ‘oral myths intended to describe what a great academic might have done.’

It’s still a nice story, but let’s be skeptical.


Volkswagen gets mythical

I saw this on the way to work today:

That’s the Volkswagen Phaeton, and maybe I’ve been living under a saxum, but I’d never heard of one before.

Normally we’d approve of a classical reference, but, uh … didn’t he die in a fiery wreck or something?


Famous Classicists

Many of us are familiar with the old flyer promoting the study of Classics (PDF) by listing famous people like Ted Turner and Vince Lombardi. Here’s the list:

1) Sigmund Freud, pioneer in psychoanalysis
2) W.E.B. DuBois, sociologist and co-founder of NAACP
3) Jane Addams, social worker,
founder of Hull House, and recipient of 1931 Nobel Peace Prize
4) Lynn Sherr, ABC-TV correspondent
5) Friedrich W. Nietzsche, philosopher
6) Gerda Lerner, pioneer in teaching women’s history
7) Nancy Vickers, president of Bryn Mawr College
8) William Cohen, former U.S. Secretary of Defense
9) Willa Cather, author
10) Vince Lombardi, football coach
11) J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter books
12) Betty Friedan, founder of NOW
13) Rita Mae Brown, animal enthusiast
14) James Baker, former U.S. Secretary of State
15) Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland, CA, and former governor of California
16) Chuck Geschke, co-founder of Adobe Systems
17) Toni Morrison, author and recipient of 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature
18) Alicia Stallings, prize-winning poet; and
19) Ted Turner, founder of CNN.

Not only is the list out of date and filled with names that students will not recognize (William Cohen?), it’s also inaccurate. Ted Turner, for instance, only briefly studied classics, and you may already have read the letter his father sent when he learned of his son’s classical frivolity (“…I almost puked …“). It’s often given a positive spin and has gotten some good press lately, but Turner later changed his major to economics before being expelled. The best you can say is that someone who wanted to study Classics ended up a success, yet to connect the two is dishonest as it suggests to potential majors a connection between a Classics degree and the kind of success enjoyed by Turner.

And describing Rita Mae Brown as an ‘animal enthusiast’ is even more absurd. While it may be true, it ignores the fact that she hunts foxes for fun (I guess that’s a kind of enthusiasm), and that she is most famous as a writer, which one could note without mentioning her sexuality or her most famous book, Rubyfruit Jungle. (I assume that’s what they wanted to avoid.)

We need a new list, and the LatinTeach blog has given us a great starting point: Chris Martin of Coldplay.

And while that is a good start, the notion of listing famous Classics majors seems a bit wrong-headed. It’s glamor-baiting, really, and if we want to show the viability of Classics we should really consider including successful people beyond celebrities. We can do this, perhaps, by appealing to people’s career aspirations and showing that Classics is a road others have taken to get there.

First up is a person who seems an obvious choice. Not only does he have a classics degree, but he is an outspoken advocate of the classics.

In the field of politics: Boris Johnson, mayor of London.

Boris Johnson

In journalism: Jeffrey Brown, senior correspondent on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Jeffrey Brown

How about nursing?: Dame June Clark, professor emerita and member of the Royal College of Nursing.

Dame June Clark

Or the priesthood: Peter Moran, the Bishop of Aberdeen. “His personal motto is ‘Gaudium et Spes’ – Joy and Hope.”

Peter Moran

Or law: Kannon Shanmugam, who has argued ten cases before the Supreme Court. He’s a partner at Williams & Connolly and a former law clerk to Antonin Scalia.

Kannon Shanmugam

This is a start, and I welcome additions to the list.


Classics tees in time for Christmas: 20% off, today only!

Use code "beforechristmas" on 12/17 to ensure delivery before Christmas, while saving 20%!

Use code beforechristmas on 17 December to ensure delivery before Christmas, while saving 20%!

Today only (17 December 2010), if you order any (or why not all?) of our shirts using the code “beforechristmas” our vendor guarantees delivery before Christmas with an added bonus of a 20% discount.

You can’t beat a deal like that, so if you or someone you love is a Classical Geek like we are, this is great time to buy a shirt that will show the world in a fun way.


Bad Latin: Hayden-Harnett’s Veneficus Libri Bag

This does not say "magic book."

On the "spine" of the bag, the bad Latin "title."

I am always disappointed when I have to do a Bad Latin post, but this time is especially tough for me because I really like Brooklyn brand Hayden-Harnett.  They teamed up with Disney to produce a line of accessories inspired by the 70-year-old film Fantasia. Among these is the Veneficus Libri bag, a beautifully detailed design meant to look like a book. The name is an attempt at Latin, and is supposed to mean “magic book,” according to the description.  This phrase is printed on the bag itself, as if the title on the binding.

When I first saw the bag, I wanted to give Hayden-Harnett the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that the phrase veneficus libri was an attested term meaning “book[s] of the sorcerer.” This would be fitting for a bag inspired by Fantasia with its “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence.  A cursory Google search confirmed that the phrase veneficus libri appears a lot on the web.  I figured that veneficus was a fourth declension noun and libri was plural because there were several “books” in the tome in question.

When I looked it up, though, this idea was shot down.  Veneficus is a first/second declension adjective that can be used substantively to mean “sorcerer,” so it can only be nominative singular.  Realizing that the Latin was therefore “sorcerer of the book,” I looked further into that Google search, and found that the term only appears on websites devoted to magic and social networking games and the like, and doesn’t appear in a book or scholar search.

The source of this term is most likely our old friend, the online translator.  Put “magic book” into one, and you get veneficus libri.  I’d like to reiterate what Dennis said in his recent post, Good Psych, Bad Latin:  Those who would like to use Latin in their movie, jewelry, comic, or whatever, contact a Latinist– it only takes a moment longer to contact us than to input something into an online translator, but the payoff is not having something absurd printed on your commercial product.

A gracious and witty response from Hayden-Harnett.

We're blaming it on a 12th century scribal error: - ungrammatical Latin, but a beautiful bag -

Good Psych, Bad Latin

Sarah and I love Psych, a comedic take on Sherlock Holmes, which appears on the USA network.

Gus and Shawn from USA's Psych.

Shawn Spencer, a slacker with daddy issues, pretends to be psychic so that he can do the detective work his father trained him to do from boyhood without having to fulfill his father’s dream of actually becoming a cop (and having a boss and responsibility, and all the rest).

His best friend Gus (Burton Guster) is his Watson and provides the transportation (his little car, affectionately called the Blueberry), the common sense, the awareness of the outside world, the credit card, etc., (as well as ‘the super-sniffer’: his superior sense of smell, which helps the duo from time to time).

Detective Lassiter is Lestrade, and you might stretch things to say that Shawn’s father (played by Corbin Bernsen) is a sort of Mycroft Holmes, whom Sherlock consults when he’s stuck, but that’s gone far enough. If you think the psychic detective bit sounds like CBS’s the Mentalist (also worth watching), Psych came first and never tires of making fun of the similarity.

I bring this up not only because we’re fans of the show but because the latest episode, set in a town eerily like Twin Peaks (and populated by its cast), features Latin used by a teenage girl as a kind of code to keep her last diary entries private. (You can watch the episode online.)

Here’s a bad photo of the diary page in question:

And here’s a transcription:

EGO sentio sit absens haeres non erit.

Coepi seeing R quod sum valde gavisus. Must non dico J ut is mos non exsisto gavisus. Volo EGO could dico quispiam.

R est sic populus EGO cannot puto sit interested in mihi, totus meus amicitia es jelus.

Hodie EGO sermo ut R quod is said nos postulo impetro

It’s not Latin, but a kind of cypher that can be frustrating for a Latinist. Actually, it’s not really a cypher either, which I’ll explain in a minute. [Read more →]