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Author Attempts to Make Speaking Latin Hip

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Author Attempts to Make Speaking Latin Hip

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Author Attempts to Make Speaking Latin Hip

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

A little learning is a dangerous thing, according to Alexander Pope, but Harry Mount couldn't disagree more. He wants you to learn just a little bit of Latin. Not because it will make you a better English speaker, but because you'll be able to translate the tattoo on Angelina Jolie's belly, should you ever see it.

From there, he claims that it's just a short hop to understanding the inscriptions on tombstones, not to mention the works Horace and Catullus. So now is the time to begin - carpe diem. It's the name of Harry Mount's new book, "Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life."

Welcome to the program, Harry Mount.

Mr. HARRY MOUNT (Author, "Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life"): Thanks very much for having me on the show.

LYDEN: Did you have a firsthand sighting of the tattoo on Angelina Jolie's midsection?

Mr. MOUNT: I didn't. But I noticed it in a newspaper report when she was traveling through Heathrow Airport about a year ago on the way to the economic summit at Davos. And the line, which she had on the lower slopes of her pregnant belly were, quod me nutrit me destruit, which means, rather philosophical thought, what nourishes me destroys me. And no one knows the origin of the expression.

John Donne used it in the late 16th century, but he acknowledged he'd borrowed it from some unknown source. But, anyway, I thought that it had a more powerful force in Latin than if she just put it in English.

LYDEN: What nourishes me destroys me.

Mr. MOUNT: Yup.

LYDEN: I was sort of wondering if she's speaking to herself or this unborn child.

Mr. MOUNT: Well, exactly. I know, it's a fairly sort of macabre thought. I don't know how the baby is going to take off as a result.

LYDEN: You studied Latin at Oxford.

Mr. MOUNT: Yeah.

LYDEN: Why? Why do you think the rest of us - I would have loved to have studied it; I haven't. Why do you think the rest of us need to know just a wee bit of it?

Mr. MOUNT: I think the principal reason is the great beauty of the language. Beyond that, it's tremendously useful for your understanding of English - not as some people say because it's so similar, but because it's so different. There are all sorts of expressions that only exist in Latin that don't exist in English, like the ablative absolute or the gerundive; I won't go into these complicated things. But it's entirely because these expressions don't exist in English, that in translating from one to the other that you really have to think about how language - not just Latin and just English - how all languages are constructed.

LYDEN: What drew you to it as a younger man?

Mr. MOUNT: Well, I was forced to, to begin with. I had an old-fashioned education in a prep school in London. But I started off by loving word derivations and I love the journey of the word. A very good example is the word candid, which comes from candidus meaning white, pure, unvarnished. And you can see why candid, our word candid comes from that. It's a big harder to work out why the word candidate comes from candidus.

It's a long time since I've heard the words political candidate and white, pure, unvarnished in the same sentence. And it turns out that it's because when Romans were standing to become senator, they would sprinkle themselves with white chalk dust to stand out in a crowd, so they become known as candidus - the candid one - and eventually candidate.

LYDEN: Do you think our current use of English is decaying, and do we need Latin to help it revive?

Mr. MOUNT: I don't think it's necessarily decaying. I think it's very good that languages change. I mean, in fact, there was a terrific argument along these lines between the two British novelists, the father and son, Kingsley and Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis, considered the old-fashioned, grumpy old man of English letters, was actually on the easygoing side.

His son Martin said that the English word dilapidated which comes from lapis -lapidis meaning stone - should only be used in a very literal sense. So he would be prepared to say if you saw a stone wall being knocked over by a truck, my, that wall looks dilapidated.

But he wouldn't use it of, say, Bob Hope or Kirk Douglas because they are not stone walls. And I think Martin Amis is ridiculous on this front. And I'm with Kingsley Amis on this one. So I'm all for language changing, but I think it's very, very useful and enjoyable to know the basis of these words.

LYDEN: It has been absolutely fantastic talking to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. MOUNT: Great pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.

LYDEN: Harry Mount is a former Latin tutor and the author of "Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life."

(Soundbite of song, "Nunc Hic Aut Numquam")

Mr. MOUNT: (Speaking in Latin)

LYDEN: NPR is, NPR was, NPR will be, NPR will have been.

And this is NPR News.

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