Verba Vitae Ex ‘Lingua Mortua’

25 April 2024

Harpriya NLCS Thinking


In a remote corner of the British library, Holmes sat with his bulbous chin digging into his palm. Much like a painting whose eyes follow you relentlessly across a room, until you can’t help but cry, ‘What do you want from me?!’, his own eyes were locked on The English Language.

The English languages is most at ease in the British Library. Most flamboyant, especially when adopting its alter-ego – English Literature. It capers and cavorts across the horizontals, verticals and diagonals of the shelves, glossing nimbly over glossaries, swooning for Shakespeare, waltzing with Merriam Webster. Quite the show, and far too much excitement for the setting.

“English likes to show off what he can do.” I remarked to my companion. “And rightly so. I haven’t seen anywhere else such spell-binding syntax or daring diction.”

Holmes nodded curtly, not taking his eyes from the subject.

“But Watson, I cannot stand his claims to originality! Upon more than one occasion he has boasted of an ‘innovative spirit’ and ‘extraordinary knack’ for making up wonderful words out of, as he puts it, thin air! Excuse my language, but, really, I’m surprised his trousers aren’t on fire!”

I knew my friend to be calculative and dry in his words, which were in most cases scarce, and, thus, so impassioned a rambling took me aback.

“And why would his pantaloons be ablaze?”

I thought this a clever thing to say at the time.

“Examine him with insufferable scrutiny, as I’ve taught you, Watson. Don’t miss a capital ‘I’
(which in itself speaks of a big ego). In every sentence he weaves, there is at the very least one word that traces back to Latin (not to mention German or French). Even “trace” comes from the Latin ‘trahere’, translating to ‘to drag’! And ‘Translate’ comes from the Latin ‘transferre’, whose own etymology is ‘trans’ (across) + ‘ferre’(bear/carry) – so ‘to translate’ is to ‘carry across’ or ‘carry beyond’ meaning. How beautiful is that! Meaning from Latin has been carried in speech for centuries and centuries – and not just in English! The Romance languages all bear their own linguistic time-capsules from Latin, each in a different way. You could even expect Latin words in the subcontinent, due to Latin’s language exchange with Sanskrit.”

“Fascinating” I managed to get in.

“It’s more than just etymology. It’s a testament to the evolution of communication and expression over time. I could say something I shouldn’t, and I’d be ‘profane’. An ancient Roman man, call him Quintus, could have done the same and ended up ‘profanus’(outside the temple). What a brilliant thing it is to have relics of the past on our tongues as we speak! Why would English want to deny that, or overlook it?”

“Perhaps he’s just being daft.” I waited for Holmes to explain to me the etymology of ‘daft’.

“‘Daft’ is of Germanic origin, actually.”


“Say, Watson, were you lucky enough to get a classics education at school?”

“No, I wasn’t. Which is a shame, since it seems you carry a lot of yours with you.”

“I do. And more than just the facts on word origin. A whole world of transferrable skills. In fact, I don’t think I’d be able to look so closely at my cases, if I hadn’t so meticulously learnt my cases.”

‘Wordplay, nice.’

by Harpriya, for the Bloomsbury, A love of classics competition, where she was Highly Commended.


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