One of the little jobs I used to have to do, back in the days when I worked at Birmingham Central Library, was to answer any enquiry that came in relating to Latin.
I recall one such request arriving from a Birmingham police station. They wanted an unofficial coat-of-arms, and already had a motto in mind. What’s the Latin, the desk sergeant asked, for “always in the s**t”? They’d obviously had a bad week.
This was out of my comfort zone, but I came up with a half-decent translation. Semper in Merda. Depending on how you pronounced it, it seemed doubly appropriate.
I’ve always had a liking for clever Latin tags. Last week we visited Stowe House and Gardens in Buckinghamshire. The house itself has, since the 1920s, been a public school, the result of debt-ridden excess by generations of earlier owners.
The school motto is Persto et Praesto. Technically this means “I succeed and stand out”, but there’s a clever play on the name of the school as well. Today a Latin advertising agency would be paid vast sums for this.
Back in the 18th Century, the neo-classical equivalent of Saatchi & Saatchi had to devise a similarly smart motto for the Vernons, who owned Hanbury Hall. The result can be seen all over the place, on fireplaces, mantelpieces and tableware.
Ver non semper viget, it reads. Taken as four Latin words, this translates into English as “The spring does not last forever”. But if you run the first two words together, then it changes to “Vernon flourishes forever”. How clever is that?
My favourite of all dates from 1844 when the British Army was putting down a rebellion in Sindh province, now part of Pakistan. After its capture, a rather smart teenage girl called Catherine Winkworth sent a joke to Punch.
The British commander, she said, needed only one word for his victorious telegram home: peccavi. It’s the Latin for “I have sinned”. It’s also, of course, “I have Sindh”.
Ah, they don’t educate them like that anymore.
* Dr Chris Upton is Reader in Public History at Newman University Birmingham