Latin Lovers

By Baldwin, Barry | Verbatim, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Latin Lovers


Baldwin, Barry, Verbatim


Eleanor Dickie, in her Latin Forms of Address (2002), counts 244 terms of endearment against 149 insults, a statistic that may weaken the image of Romans as unsentimental cold fishes.

Just a sample here, omitting the scores of obvious adjectives (e.g. Dearest, in regular/comparative/superlative forms). For those VERBATIM. readers who remember their Latin, I add it parenthetically.

In Plautus' The Little Carthaginian (vv. 360-63), a swain thus wheedles his girl: "My pleasure, my delight, my life, my pleasantness, my kiss, my honey, my colostrum, my softest little cheese."

Another Plautine comedy, Donkey Girl (vv. 693-94), features this tart's address to a slave: "Duckling, dove or puppy, swallow, jackdaw, tiny little sparrow."

Suetonius (Life of Caligula, ch. 13) says the besotted populace hailed him as "Star, chick, babe, nursling."

The poets Martial (Epigrams, bk. 10 no. 68) and Juvenal (Satire 6 vv. 191-96) rebuke women for using Greek love-talk, especially Zoe kai Psyche ('My Life and Soul'), "words fit only for under the blanket."

They were, though--mocks the philosopherbard Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, bk. 4 vv. 1160-69)--useful to the man as euphemisms for his lady's physical defects. This verbal technique is also recommended in a fragment of Philaenis' sex manual (all ancient sex manuals were attributed to women).

Dorothy Sayers, in Busman's Honeymoon, provides the best gloss: after the wedding night, Harriet Wimsey (nee Vane) lies wondering if Lord Peter's first words would be in English or French.

The first passage's pleasantness (amoenitas), along with (elsewhere) my commodity and my opportunity, affords scope to Marxist cash-nexus analyses of love. Little eye (ocellus) is a bit loaded--Roman graffito-mongers often drew penises with an eye in the tip. Little lip (labellum) may be a paradoxical pun on labes ('ruin,' a regular insult). Kiss is here savium: Catullus would later introduce basium (whence baiser, bacio, beso, etc.), poetically heaping his kisses onto Lesbia to the tune of 3,300 (Ralegh's Now Serena Be Not Coy extends them to infinity)--we may agree with Shakespeare's amorous Antony, "There's beggary in the love that can be measured." Honey (mel--there are several cognate terms, plus a Pompeian wall-scribbler's aphorism "Lovers like bees live in honey") is the obvious ancestor of amatory American, albeit there is no Latin equivalent to "Hi, Honey, I'm Home." Colostrum (same in Latin), unexplained and untranslated by Dickie, denotes beestings, another compliment with possible barb. …

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