Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor

Not long ago I was reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I got to Book VII, which begins with a great monologue as Medea debates with herself whether or not she should desert her father and homeland and run off with Jason. As I was reading, I came across a very famous line, (Ov. Met.VII.20-21): “video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor” and I said to myself “Hey, you really don’t have to translate this line into English, because it’s pretty much English already.” Every word (almost) in the passage has passed into English with a meaning very close to the original.

The first word, “video”, is a verb in Latin, first person singular present indicative; it means “I see”. In English it’s both a noun and a verb.

“Meliora” is found in the English “ameliorate”, “to make something better”; the word “meliorate” also occurs in English, but it’s less common; also “meliorism” is “the doctrine that the world may be made better by properly directed human action”. The Latin “meliora” is the neuter plural accusative of the comparative adjective “melior” used as a substantive, so it means “better things”.

“Probo” is found in a zillion English words, from “probe” to “probation” to “probate”, and also in “approbation”; “prove” is really the same, just with a slight change in pronunciation, and thus also “approve”. In Latin “probo” has two primary meanings, “to test” and “to esteem as good”, and it’s the second of these that’s relevant in the passage from Ovid.

The only non-English form in the sentence is “que”, which means “and”; it gets stuck on to the end of the second word in a series, so English “A and B” in Latin could be “A Bque”.

“Deteriora” in Latin is a form of the comparative adjective “deterior”, which means “worse”, so it means “worse things”. This shows up in English “deteriorate”, “to become worse”; (Just as a digressive footnote, in English I can use “ameliorate” as a transitive verb—“This action will ameliorate the situation”, but I can’t use “deteriorate” that way—“This action will deteriorate the situation”. I hear people use the verb that way, but it always makes me wince. On the other hand, I can say, “The situation will deteriorate”, but I can’t say “The situation will ameliorate”.)

And finally “sequor” is a verb meaning “I follow”; in English we get “sequence” and “sequel” and “consequence”. So you put it all together and the Latin “video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor” in English means “I see better things and I approve, I follow worse things”—or more loosely, “I know what’s right, I’m doing what’s wrong anyway”. (As a footnote, we can notice the asyndeton, that is, lack of a conjunction between the two clauses, where a “but” might be expected: “I know what’s right, but I’m doing wrong anyway”.)

These words are just a small sample of the thousands of words that English has borrowed from Latin. Some words are directly borrowed from Latin, but many others came from Latin through French, and many of these have changed on the way. Sometimes we have both an indirect and a direct borrowing of the same word, and often you can see the difference. The English word “fragile”, for instance, comes directly from the Latin “fragilis”, which means, no surprise, “fragile”. The English word “frail” also comes from the Latin “fragilis”, but through the Old French “frele”, where it lost the middle syllable. I suppose that “frail” and “fragile” are synonyms, but to my ear they have slightly different nuances. In most situations I would say that a person is frail but an object is fragile; if I say that a person is fragile, I’m probably talking about something mental or emotional rather than physical. But these distinctions could be my own idiosyncrasies. I would be interested to hear how you use the words.

Pairs such as “fragile” and “frail” are called doublets. There are a number of these Latin/French doublets in English. Another pair is “regal”, which comes from Latin “rex” (which is really “reg-s”, but spelled with an “x”) and “royal”, which comes from the French “roi”, or, in an older spelling, “roy” (whence the name). We also have “kingly”, a Germanic word that goes back to Old English and from there back to Proto-Germanic. There are lots of other sets of related words—“skirt” and “shirt”, “feeble” and “foible”, “cattle” and “chattel”, “disk” and “desk”, “crutch” and “crotch” and “crook” and “crouch” and “crochet” and “croquet’—and I will talk about some of these in other posts, but I’m in danger of losing the track I was on (that’s always a danger when I’m doing etymologies), which is Latin words in English.

There are many thousands of Latin words borrowed into English, so many that there’s hardly any point in beginning to list them; here are a few, just to make the point: adjacent, adolescent, aggregate, arbitrary, calculate, confiscate, conjugal, contemplate, detergent, ambulance, and so on and so on.

There’s a general feeling that Latin words borrowed into English are usually long; that’s not wrong, but it’s not a universal rule. The word “street”, for instance, derives from the Latin verb “sterno” (“to spread”), the past participle of which was “stratum”, which can be used in a perfect tense construction (“I have spread”) or as an adjective (“spread” or more specifically “paved”). This was borrowed into English very early, in the period of Old English, through the phrase “via strata”, which meant “paved road”. It was also borrowed into German (“strasse”); compare the Italian “strada”. In English we also have “stratum”, “stratify”, “stratigraphy”, which are all later borrowings closer to the Latin form. Another short Latin borrowing is “cross”, from the Latin “crux”, which goes back to Old English, perhaps from Old Irish. And again there are later borrowings closer to the Latin: “crux”, meaning a decisive point, as in “the crux of the argument”, as well as “crucify”, “crusade”, and “excruciate”.

Very often what’s borrowed is the root of a word, which then changes to fit the rules of English word formation. But sometimes a Latin word can just be borrowed pretty much as it was in Latin. The word “arena” for instance, was “arena” or “harena” in Latin; in Latin “harena” originally meant “sand” and then the sandy area where athletic contests took place. “Area” is also a direct borrowing, with no change in spelling. In Latin it means “a level or open space”; the English meaning is somewhat more general.

Often a borrowed word changes its part of speech in the process, so, for example what was a verb form in Latin becomes a noun in English. The word “video”, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is a perfectly good Latin verb form, meaning “I see”, but it has been borrowed as a noun or adjective. The word “exit” is another perfectly good Latin verb form, meaning “he/she/it goes out”, also borrowed into English as a noun. The Latin verb “veto” means “I forbid”. In Latin, “affidavit” means “he has taken an oath”; “imprimatur” means “let it be printed”; “tenet” means “he holds”; “plaudit” is shortened from the imperative form “plaudite”, which means “applaud!”; “recipe” in Latin is an imperative meaning “take!”; “alibi” in Latin is an adverb meaning “elsewhere”; “alias” is another Latin adverb, meaning “at another time” or “at another place”; “caveat” means “let him beware”; English “query” comes from the Latin verb “quaere”, which means “to seek”; “innuendo” means “by nodding”; “fiat” means “let it be done”; “quorum” is the genitive plural of the relative pronoun, so in English it means the people a minimum number “of whom” have to be present; “tandem” is an adverb meaning “at length”, so a tandem bicycle has two riders arranged “at length”.

Some English words come from the Latin verb form called a gerundive, which has the sense of necessity or obligation. The marker of the gerundive is the letters “nd” just before the ending of the word. The name “Amanda”, for instance, means “she who must be loved”, and the name “Miranda” means “she who must be admired”. An “agenda” is a list of things that “must be done”; “referendum” means “this must be brought back”; “memorandum” means “this must be remembered”. Some of borrowed gerundives have lost the ending, but not the “nd”: “reverend” is short for “reverendus”, “he must be revered”; “legend” is short for “legenda”, something that “must be read”. The “legend” on a map tells you the scale, so you have to read it if you want to use the map. A “legend” can be a story that you “ought to read”—the “Golden Legend” was a Medieval anthology of the lives of saints—clearly must reading at the time.

The English language (unlike German, for instance) is happy to accept words from other languages. Latin is the largest contributor, along with French—many of the French words go back to Latin, but, as we have seen, sometimes they have changed a lot in their travels. Greek has contributed its share, as has Spanish, and many, many, many other languages. I will talk about some of these other borrowings in upcoming posts, but next time I think I will talk about how verbing weirds language.

3 thoughts on “Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor

  1. And now I want to learn Latin.
    I love all of this. And, I share your uses of “frail” and “fragile.”
    Very much looking forward to more language weirded by verbing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m very interested that you agree about the nuances of “frail” and “fragile”. I wasn’t at all sure that anyone would agree, My friend Keith, who is a physician, mentioned (on Facebook) that frail might be used for someone who has a longer term problem but fragile for a more acute situation. I found that fascinating.

    I think there will some more Latin in my next post, but in a rather different discussion.


  3. Oh, that’s interesting! For both objects and psyches, I think of “frail” as more synonymous with lack a lack of strength and “fragile” as more synonymous with “delicate.”

    Liked by 1 person

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