Nova Vocabula vel Νέοι Λόγοι?

Gregory DiPippo

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St John Bosco (1815-88), an Italian priest from Turin who founded the Salesian Order (named after St Francis de Sales), and brought about one of the great modern reforms in education. He was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929, and canonized a bit less than five years later.

Prior to the liturgical reform promulgated after the Second Vatican Council, it was the custom of the Roman Divine Office to read accounts of the Saint’s lives on their feast days at the hour of Matins. This meant that when a new Saint was canonized, a life had to be composed for this purpose, and of course in Latin. But in Pius XI’s time, the Latinists who drew up the official texts for this purpose on behalf of the Sacred Congregation for Rites, the body in charge of promulgating them, had a strange habit of overusing Greek words, and avoiding words traditionally used in Christian Latinity in favor of others of a more classical bent.

Thus we read in the life of St John that he “spared no effort or expense to raise up recreational centers for the young… and temples to God far and wide over the globe. – nulli pepercit labori nullique impensæ, ut festorum dierum asceteria pro adolescentulis… templa Deo longe lateque per orbem excitaret.” The Greek word “asketerion” is a Christian coinage which originally meant a place where the ascetic life is practiced, i.e., a monastery (Lampe, A Patristic Lexicon ad vocem), pretty much the opposite of a recreational center. The verb from which it derives “askeo”, means “to work”, and hence “to exercise”, and hence we have here “a place for exercising on feast days.”

(A fresco of Don Bosco and some of his charges on the ceiling of the church of St Michael in Mala, Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Syrio, CC BY-SA 4.0)

One neologism is arguably as good as another, but it is difficult to see why the Latin “ludus” or even the very old borrowing “gymnasium” would not do here, rather than a borrowing that is so drastically different from its original meaning. It is likewise hard to see why, in the very same sentence, the author shied away from a Greek term of much longer standing in the Christian tradition, “ecclesias”, in favor of “templa.” (Of course, he was not the first or last to do so; I have even seen the word “templum” used in inscriptions on church façades.)

Shortly thereafter, we find this sentence, which, frankly speaking, is more than a little bizarre in its unnecessary use of Greek terms. “Tria autem pietatis officia suis maxime commendavit: ut quam sæpissime ad sacram exhomologesim sacramque synaxim accederent, ut Mariam Auxiliatricem peramanter colerent, ut Pontifici maximo ceu fílii addictíssimi obsequeréntur. – He especially recommended three works of piety to his followers: to come as often as possible to Holy Confession and the Holy Mass, to lovingly cultivate devotion to Mary, Help (of Christians), and to obey the Sovereign Pontiff as most loyal sons.” (I have here translated ad sensum rather than ad litteram.) The replacement of the very ancient term “confessio” with the clumsy “exhomologesis” and “missa” with “synaxis – assembly” is difficult to defend as a matter of good taste, to say nothing of the divorce from the standard Christian usage of well over a millennium’s standing at the time this was written.

In the same period, Pope Pius XI did a major and much-needed renovation of certain parts of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, which included among other things the installation of an elevator. I have seen the dedicatory inscription which describes this renovation, and which describes an elevator as an “anabathrum vi electrica motum.” “Anabathrum” comes from the Greek word “anabathron”, which originally meant “a raised seat”, but is here repurposed in light of its etymology, from “a thing that one goes up to” to “a thing that goes up” (and therefore also down.)

Of course, those of us who cultivate Latin as a living language will always have to make decisions about how we want to say things for which the ancient Romans simply had no word. And just as there were many ways of doing this in the Middle Ages, there will be many ways of doing this in our own time. I make bold to offer my own opinion, as nothing more than an opinion, that the creation of neologisms from Latin is preferable to the importation of Greek words, and that “elevatrum”, on the analogy of words like “aratrum”, would have been a better choice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *