As the b'hoy said to the PACman, 'Ubi est mea?'

June 13, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- It's a matter of some local pride around here that when the President of the United States chose to appear last week at the Princeton graduation ceremonies, he got to hear Havre de Grace's Charles P. Stowell deliver an address in Latin.

Salutatorian of the Class of '96 and a classics major, Mr. Stowell took the opportunity to tease President Clinton -- in Latin, of course -- about having attended law school at Yale. Mr. Clinton is not known to understand Latin, but the New York Times of course does, and provided the following translation.

''The day is special on which the 'lux et veritas' have finally been seen by a Yalie, who has chosen to breathe the spring air of Princeton.''

This was a Latin joke, Lux et Veritas, ''light and truth,'' being the Yale motto.

Pleni sunt coeli

Mottoes used to be more important to colleges and universities than they are now, probably because most of the best ones have been taken, at least in Latin. E Pluribus Universitati Unum, ''One of Many Universities,'' lacks a certain punch. So does Semper Ubi Sub Ubi, ''always wear underwear.''

The motto of Harvard, which was founded 65 years before Yale and 110 years before Princeton, is simply Veritas. When Yale set its motto-writers to work, they apparently liked the clean, clear Cambridge concept, and rather than steal it outright they just added another word.

Years later, historians note that members of the creative group assembled somewhere in New Jersey to produce a Princeton motto were initially tempted by Lux et Veritas et Pizza, but eventually settled instead on Dei Sub Numine Viget, ''Under God's power she flourishes.''

Actually, as mottoes go, I've always liked that of the Royal Humane Society, founded 73 years after Yale and two years before Princeton and dedicated to the rescue of drowning persons. Lateat Scintillula Forsan, it says, or ''perhaps a spark of life may linger.''

Mr. Stowell might have said that about the Clinton presidential campaign, but he didn't.

Ubi est Calvin?

Mr. Clinton was the first incumbent president to be honored by Princeton with a degree. Princeton intended to give one to Calvin Coolidge when he was president, but he never bothered to come and claim it and so it was never conferred.

Good-natured as ever, Mr. Clinton did not appear surprised by Mr. Stowell's needling allusions to his post-graduate education. It had presumably been explained to him by his press secretary Michael McCurry, Princeton '76, that traditionally Princeton considers Yale infra dignitatem, or ''a vulgar place near New York where wonks and weenies go.''

It isn't clear what Princeton considers Mr. Clinton's other institutions, the Georgetown and Oxford universities, but if Mr. Stowell poked fun at those places in his address it wasn't reported by the Times.

Actually, what was the most surprising to many of us reading reports of the Princeton ceremonies was the revelation that in 1996 there are still people graduating from college with degrees in classics -- meaning Latin and Greek, not '64 Mustangs.

Hardly anyone studies Latin any more, especially in college, and that's unfortunate. Public discourse suffers as a result, because journalists and others can get away with dropping Latin sayings into their prose without knowing what they mean. For example, a lot of people have no idea that the familiar phrase Cum Grano Salis means ''with a scoop of Sal's granola.''

Hic, haec, hoc

Getting back to mottoes for a moment, it strikes many Marylanders as strange that their state's motto, Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine is not only politically incorrect, but also in Italian. The concept of manly deeds and womanly words is highly out of fashion, and the state legislature always seems to want to rewrite it.

If it were in Latin it might get more respect. Fortiter in Re, Suaviter in Modo, ''strongly in deed, gently in manner,'' would make the same point without causing the vox puellae to be so screechily raised.

An alternate possibility for a Maryland motto would be the eternal words of Cicero, vectigalia nervos esse rei publicae, ''revenues are the sinews of the state.''

Anyway, it would be nice to think that Mr. Clinton's visit to Princeton, and the publicity attending Mr. Stowell's address there, might inspire a classical renaissance in America. Then every student could once again learn from the great Caesar that Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est -- ''in all of Gaul there are three political parties.''

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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