Corpus Humanum

After a few weeks of Latin, my students feel comfortable enough with me to ask what they really want to know: “Can you teach us some bad words?”

If a student makes it to chapter twenty-one in our book, he will be rewarded with the word stercus, which means ‘dung’ or ‘manure.’ By then he already knows to call other kids fatue (‘stupid’) or asine (‘ass’).

But way back in October, I put my skeleton with the moveable joints on the board and we learn the parts of the body and the major bones.

After dutifully copying down bracchium, ‘arm,’ and pes, ‘foot,’ their thoughts turn to more interesting parts. Caput (‘head’) and clunes (‘buttocks’) could yield clunes-caput, in a student’s mind, but even they know that Romans had better profanity than that.

When I was a student of Latin, I had a Cassell’s Latin dictionary. Like all fourteen-year-olds, I looked up every bad word I could think of. Very disappointing. It was as if Mr. Cassell were looking over the tops of his glasses at me, saying, “Shame! Did you think I would put those words in my dictionary?”

Eventually I acquired a larger dictionary and discovered something odd. This dictionary (I think it was Freund’s) had bad words in it, but all the definitions were in Latin. Penis was ‘membrum virile.’ O fatue! This sent me on a quest, looking up each word in the definition, until the trail eventually vanished in a cloud of declensions and conjugations.

I tell my students, “Why would I teach you the word for penis? You already know it.” Alas, many of our anatomy words are Latin. Not very interesting. Who wants to call someone a penis or a vagina? It takes all the fun out of being a clunes-caput.

Kids think that not only did they invent most of the bad words they utter a thousand times a day, but that they invented the concepts behind those words. I don’t know how they think they got here if their parents didn’t know about intercourse, or what people did about defecation and urination in the days before students said, “Shit!” when they dropped their notebook, or told someone to “Piss off!”

Actually, as any English major can tell you, most of the words you can’t say on television (well, twenty years ago, then) are from Old English. Yes, the Angles and the Saxons did have words for intercourse, defecation, urination, as well as many useful body parts.

What is more shocking is that the concept of ‘bad’ language is relatively recent. Chaucer used many naughty words. The Romans had an extensive sexual vocabulary. In poetry, they could use words and create imagery that we cannot translate in school editions of the classics. If I teach Catullus, we stick to the sparrow and avoid the baths.

So my students end up disappointed in their quest for a more extensive vocabulary. Nevermind that they pick up a lot of SAT words; they want to know how to swear.

“In Latin 3,” I promise them.

I don’t tell them that for the Romans, profanity was all about religion. I have to keep my enrollment up, you know.


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