Latin learning not lost in translation

Little did I know, way back in 1949, that learning the Latin language from teacher David L. Shaffer at Morrison Cove High School would serve me well 70 years later.

When “quid pro quo” became the central accusation in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, I didn’t need an interpreter to inform me of its exact meaning.

The politicians could have chosen “this for that,” or even “something for something,” but they at first settled on the Latin equivalent.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believed that most Americans would be confused by numerous references to the Latin phrase, so she suggested that the word “bribery” should be used by her Democratic colleagues to describe Trump’s alleged transgression.

In the mid-1950s, especially in Morrisons Cove, Latin was the foreign language offered in the area’s high schools.

Spanish and French made occasional appearances, depending on the availability of a teacher with the necessary qualification, but Latin was the constant.

Colleges at the time required a foreign language for admission, and Latin satisfied that need.

Latin and Greek were the classical languages favored in the liberal arts curricula of many Pennsylvania colleges in the early part of the 20th century. Some of the area’s Latin teachers were ordained ministers who learned the language in their seminary studies.

That was the case with Mr. Shaffer.

Latin’s peak was in the late-1930s when about 900,000 American school students studied the language. Last year, 130,000 students in grades six through 12 took the National Latin exam. An estimated 200,000 studied Latin in 1,500 schools throughout the country.

Side note: My first Navy duty station in 1957 was in Italy, where I used my free time to visit historical venues. Many of the sites I saw were in photographs in my Latin textbook, including the Coliseum in Rome and Mount Vesuvius in Naples.

Mr. Shaffer would have been proud, maybe envious.

While quid pro quo has dominated the headlines, there is actually a collection of Latin words and phrases associated with this impeachment: subpoena, corruption, investigation, transcript, conspiracy, circus.

Other Latin terms may arise. Another phrase Latin and legal scholars point to regarding the impeachment inquiry is “cui bona,” or “to whom it is a benefit.”

The term suggests that to find the guilty party, you identify who has the most to gain from the crime.

Latin has made its imprint on American history and political life.

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States, but “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) is included on the official seal of the United States, stamped on its currency and is considered by many Americans as the country’s guiding principle.

When Latin was king in Cove high schools, it was considered the height of romance and sophistication for steady daters to express mutual affection using the foreign words learned in their classroom.

“Amo te” (I love you) and “bellus es” (you are wonderful) were the most intimate of those declarations.

And if the relationship broke up, you could always claim you didn’t know what you were saying.

Cove historian James Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror.


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