Maximum grammar geekery, or What on earth is a gerund, anyway?!

Has it ever occurred to you that lots of the terminology for Latin grammar is what it does? It’s really helpful when trying to explain it.

Consider the Present Participle. The word ‘present’ is itself formed from a present participle in Latin, praesens, meaning present, at hand, prompt etc. And the present participle means something that is happening now, in the present, promptly if you will. Brilliant! But what I really like is that it looks like the Latin form – it’s last three letters, at least. The -ent of ‘present’ resembles the -ens of the Latin form, which corresponds in turn to the -ing of the English form, eg doing – they all have ‘n’ in the middle of the three letters! Am I taking this a bit far? I usually draw my students a little memorial diagram to highlight the ‘n’ thing, like this:



The present participle: does what it is! (Also, one of the more dull images of all time, but this is a post about Latin grammatical terminology. There’s a funny image further down.)

Let us consider next the Perfect tense. The word ‘perfect’ is itself formed from a perfect participle, perfectus, which means finished, ie the meaning of the perfect tense, an action finished, by definition, in the past. Genius!

And the Imperfect tense? Well, that means ‘not perfect’, an action that was ongoing in the past, not finished  – she was doing her homework (imperfect tense; as yet unfinished) when the dog ate it (perfect tense; it’s finished now, isn’t it?).

How about tricksier stuff, like the Gerund. ‘The whaaaaa?’ I hear you cry. Don’t panic! It’s a verbal noun — a noun formed from a verb, like the words running or swimming and so on when used in sentences like ‘running is my passion’, ‘swimming makes me happy’. The word gerund comes from the Latin verb gero (in its gerund form, of course) which  is essentially a verb of doing stuff, getting on with things. One of its meanings is to wage war. That’s getting on with stuff if ever anything was. And what does the gerund mean? Well, it generally expresses the idea of getting on with something. There are some eminent examples of gerunds in mottos, such as the Pope’s own motto, miserando atque eligendo, but also the commonly used phrase modus operandi, meaning a method of doing something, getting something done, if you will.


Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth’s imagining of the Gerund and Gerundive; image from here

Its partner in grammar crimes against student comprehension is the much maligned Gerundive. I always feel quite sorry for the gerundive. A colleague once made a matching fluffy gerund and gerundive pair of little creatures for her classroom to cheer her pupils up. Now I think of it, the gerundive always looked by far the more mischievous of the two. It essentially means the same thing as the gerund but is more adjectival and passive, bless it – though only in a grammatical sense, as it usually has an even stronger sense of something needing to be got on with. Take one of my favourite examples, nunc est bibendum. This means ‘now is the time for drinking needing to be done‘. See how this cheeky little adjective is not actually describing anything, and despite being passive, translates better here as active. In fact, it usually translates better into English as active, so much so that teachers and students alike often ignore its passivity altogether, or confuse it with its fluffy gerund sibling. So many reasons for students to feel aggrieved towards it, now I come to think of it…. To explain its form, ‘gerundive’ has the Latin adjectival ending -ivum (which you can also see in the word ‘adjective’. I love this stuff!), so it is an adjective itself. Like I say, I love this stuff!

Here are some more of my favourite gerundives from everyday life:

  1. My own middle name, Amanda, she who ought to be loved;
  2. The marvellous Miranda, she who ought to be marvelled at (not to be confused with verandah, something which ought to be sat on when it’s sunny. I used to confuse these words when I was little);
  3. Agenda, (usually boring) things which ought to be done.

As usual, I could go on and on with all this — I haven’t even touched on the cases! — but I will leave it there for now. Happy grammaring!


Church Latin? It’s, ahem, all Greek to me…

My husband and I decided a couple of years ago that we would challenge ourselves to visit every Anglican cathedral in England. I like church history, and churches, and my husband likes that churches are pretty good places for small children to explore safely. We have subsequently visited some of the most beautiful places and buildings in the country and both developed a pedantry around use of the word aisle when nave is meant. As well as the splendour of the buildings, there is plenty of opportunity for exploring language since the church is a vast repository of fascinating and arcane words.

When is a cathedral not a cathedral? When it’s a chair!

First word on my list, then, is Cathedral. We tend to think of Latin as being the language of the church, but this word came into Latin from Greek, as you might have guessed from the very un-Latin presence of a ‘th’ in its middle. Greek — and Latin —  ‘cathedra’ means simply ‘chair’. Lewis and Short (my wonderful Latin dictionary) gives a bit more detail: ‘a chair, a stool, esp. one furnished with cushions and supports for women, an arm chair‘, and then goes on to mention it as a bishop’s chair, amongst other definitions. The chair itself is central to the cathedral since the cathedral is the ‘seat’ of the bishop. My marvellous guide book, The Cathedrals of England, by Batsford and Fry, describes Southwell before it was elevated to cathedral status as ‘the bishop of York’s footstool’, back when it was merely a lowly Minster.


In some cathedrals you are hard pushed to spot the cathedra amongst all the other fascinating paraphernalia, but Chelmsford makes much of its beautiful greenish chair of Westmorland slate. Picture from here.

More see, bishop?

The cathedral is also in English home to the ‘see’ of the bishop, which sounds a bit like seat, but refers more to the job of the bishop.

Bishop sounds English, doesn’t it? What could be more English than taking tea with a bishop? Well, it is a very anglicised word, that’s for sure, but its roots are again Greek. Episcopos is the Greek for bishop, and it means ‘the one who looks out’ — like in periscope or telescope. One of the earliest English christian church leaders was a chap called Benedict Biscop. His name gives us a clue as to how the Greek word episcopos became English bishop. It lost its initial ‘e’, hardened its new initial ‘p’ to ‘b’ and softened its ‘sc’ to ‘sh’. Obvious, really.

But what does a bishop do? Looks out from their seat (cathedra!) over their see — which sounds a lot like seat! — but is to do with looking! — onto their diocese. Whoa, there! What’s a diocese?

What’s a Diocese, sis?

This word also comes to Latin via Greek. Cicero used ‘dioecesis’ to mean an area under a governor’s jurisdiction (I know this from its dictionary entry in Lewis and Short rather than an encyclopaedic knowledge of Cicero, I’m sorry to have to admit). It became an area under a bishop’s jurisdiction with the advent of Christianity. In case you are interested, its Greek roots are ‘di’ (preposition meaning ‘through’) + ‘oikos’ (noun meaning ‘house’), creating ‘dioikein’ meaning ‘to keep house’ or ‘administer’. Why it is pronounced to rhyme with sis is anyone’s guess! Fascinatingly, ‘oikos’ also crops up in the English word ‘economy’, which is also all about keeping your house in order.

Ship ahoy!

Ely, one of the most splendid cathedrals in the country, rising ineffably on its improbable hill from the murky flats of East Anglia, is known as the Ship of the Fens. This word, ship, crops up again in church terminology in the word nave. As I said at the beginning, aficionados of church architecture get a little sweaty about the word nave, because it is not an aisle!! The nave is the main central space up the length of a church. It comes from the Latin ‘navis’, which means ‘ship’. Clearly all churches are ships of faith, steering a course through high seas of unbelievers and allegory, disembarking souls of faithful parishioners at their heavenly destination. The tradition of seeing the Church as a ship is as ancient as the Church itself, as far as I can tell from a quick Google.


The Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral on its improbable hill. Photo credit P. Wood.

Aisle have two of those flying ships!

If the nave is not an aisle, then what is? Well, there are usually two aisles in a church, one to the north and one to the south of the nave. They are the wings of the ship! Aisle comes via French from the Latin for wing, ‘ala’. My Shorter OED (Volume 1) tells me (via the abbreviation ‘conf.’) that it is spelt funny on account of someone once upon a time having confused it with with the word ‘isle’, island, whilst simultaneously thinking about the French world ‘aile’, meaning ‘wing’.

I really could go on and on with this subject — there’s the font (Latin ‘fons’, a spring), the altar (Latin ‘altus’, high), the transept, the triforium and clerestory and the word church itself to name a few, but I think I might save those for another fascinating instalment of ‘Charlie Loves Dictionaries!’


Caroliola et amici sunt in taberna. linguam Latinam loquuntur.

When I look back through the archives of this site, I’m frankly astounded that I’ve written anything on it. You see, I have two small children. The older one started school last term, in reception class. Somehow this is much more exhausting for everyone concerned than when she was at pre-school, even though she only does half days still. The necessity of getting her there, the necessity to provide clean uniform, remember her school bag, remember to put the right books in it, remember to take the right things out of it – none of these things mattered at pre-school. I haven’t even considered the element of encouraging reading and writing skills… So, it’s all quite hard work, and subsequently I haven’t published anything for months. My apologies are offered sincerely to any reader who cares/ exists.

What I have been doing, however, (on top of school runs and infinite laundry etc) is teaching. Teaching A Level Latin, GCSE Latin and A Level Classical Civilisations (and some German). I have also been having conversations with teachers, and students, about teaching, and learning, Latin.

I am a big fan of David Carter’s Classical Workbooks which provide study resources for GCSE and A Level Latin and Greek set texts. I have been talking to him about some of the ideas expressed both in his workbooks and more explicitly on his website, namely immersive learning techniques. He advocates in his books reading the Latin or Greek text ‘many times ALOUD and FAST’. He also advocates knowing what the text means before attempting translation and provides a very literal interlinear translation as an aid. I must confess that although I think this is a great idea and have indeed suggested to A Level pupils that they look up translations in case of really struggling with a piece of homework in order to figure out on their own how it fits together, I still struggle with it as a face to face teaching approach — mainly because I haven’t fully and consciously considered it as an approach until this week. Another of his projects currently under construction is spoken versions of set texts for students to listen to alongside written and interactive texts. His approach to teaching and learning set texts for GCSE and A Level is totally immersive.

Talking to another teacher recently we discussed the Cambridge Latin Course and its potential short comings. Personally, I love Book I, I love Caecillius and all his household, but I really struggle with Book II partly on account of how the characters become less likeable but mainly because the stories become impossibly long. On the grammar front, I feel it is the teacher’s responsibility to fill in any gaps or correct any lies that the books might present (currit does not mean runs!!!) so I don’t hold a grudge on that front. I also recognise, however, that not all Latin teachers these days are subject specialists and perhaps don’t have the skills to fill in those gaps. The person I was chatting with, however, is another advocate for a more immersive learning style and a fan of prose composition in beginner classrooms, a subject I have written about here.

In short, and not least because my children are now fighting each other and it’s bedtime, I feel it is time that Latinists got together and considered new approaches to teaching Latin in schools, and by new I probably don’t mean anything new at all. A glance at American Twitter users’ profiles shows that in the US quite a different approach is taken already – American Latin teachers’ Twitter handles are Magistra or Magister and meet ups in cafés are advertised at which Latin will be spoken. We Brits do not do this. Why not? Like I say, I think it’s time for teachers, academics, teacher trainers and even students to get together and talk about how we teach and learn Latin in Britain today. Caroliola et amici sunt in taberna. linguam Latinam loquuntur.

If I were in Boston, Mass. I would definitely go to this.

I’d love to know readers’ thoughts – please do comment!


Some tattoos, ancient and modern

My daughter wants a tattoo. She’s three. The pirates in her sticker book have them, so does Charlotte at pre-school. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but Charlotte is a grown up, she’s your teacher. You have to be a grown up to have a tattoo.’ Abject disappointment.

My favourite reference to tattooing in the ancient world is by Virgil in his epic the Aeneid.

It’s an interesting reference because it subverts expectations. Aeneas in Book 4 is being likened to Apollo, a beautiful and generally well behaved god, but Aeneas is about to be poorly behaved. He is about to embark on an ill-fated love affair with Dido, queen of Carthage in North Africa, when he should be heading off to Italy where he will become the founder of the race of Romans. The subversive reference to Apollo describes a beautiful god striding across mountain ridges, but it uses language and imagery more usually associated with the much naughtier god of wine, dance and general debauchery, Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek). There is a line describing the peoples attending Apollo, ‘Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi’ which can be translated as ‘The Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar’. It is the tattooed Agathyrsians who first piqued my interest — it is for one thing so pleasing to say aloud — picti Agathyrsi: they were a tribe from the Black Sea coast, far away, with outlandish practices such as colouring their hair blue and tattooing their bodies. Annoyingly, however, ‘picti’ might not actually mean tattooed but just painted. At any rate, the reference is to a foreign, strange tribe, who do un-Roman things with their appearance. We should beware this lovely looking god-like man, then, for he is about to associate himself with an un-Roman liaison which will certainly not end well. Nothing associated with Bacchus ever ends that well, in fact people frequently get torn limb from limb by their own mothers. In short, Dido falls terrifically in love to the neglect of all else, but the gods remind Aeneas that he should be on his way. He leaves without so much as a by-your-leave. Dido, in a fit of rage, burns all his stuff, then throws herself onto the bonfire too. Aeneas sees the smoke from far out at sea and hopes all is well. So much for the association with Bacchus.

Sticking with ‘picti’, you may be thinking that this word sounds a lot like what we call the folk who lived in the north of Britain around the time the Romans were building Hadrian’s Wall, and you would be right. The Picts were the inhabitants of what we would now roughly call Scotland. However, once again, whether or not they were tattooed or merely painted themselves blue (blue again!) is a moot point. The word ‘picti’ comes from the Latin verb pingo, pingere, pinxi, pictum, meaning to paint, but also to embroider, embellish, stain or tattoo. It is a bit interesting to note that while embroidery and tattooing require different media for their colours, both require a needle to apply their colours. Again, the Picts of northern Britain were an outlandish people who so resisted Roman attempts to civilise them that a wall had to be built to keep them out of the way.

Another Latin word which has been taken to mean tattooed is ‘stigma’. In English we understand stigmatised as meaning marked with something somehow downgrading. Annoyingly, Lewis and Short (as mentioned in a previous post, THE Latin dictionary) only gives its meanings as ‘A mark burned in, a brand, impressed on slaves as a mark of disgrace… a mark of disgrace, a stigma…’. So not necessarily a tattoo at all. However, when we look further afield than Classical Latin, we find fourth century references to soldiers being tattooed with pin pricks after having proven themselves fit enough to join up, and also sixth century Latin recipes for tattoo ink, where the word ‘stigma’ definitely means tattoo. Hurrah!

What at all these references to painted, branded and tattooed bodies in the classical world have in common, however, is that the practice was most associated with foreigners, slaves and soldiers. Not suitable, then, for daughters of teachers and accountants, regardless of age. Sorry, Daughter Dearest!

Further Reading/ Viewing

Here is a link to a history of tattooing.

EDITED to include this link to a fascinating article by Sarah E. Bond on tattooing for religious reasons.

My very talented cousin Laura is a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon; here is some of her beautiful work, just because I like it.

Ingo Gildenhard has written a study guide to Aeneid Book 4 which has a neat discussion of scholarship on the Apollo simile. Other booksellers are available.

This is the Latin passage of the simile from Aeneid IV, lines 143-50, with my translation.

qualis ubi hibernam Lyciam Xanthique fluenta
deserit ac Delum maternam invisit Apollo
instauratque choros, mixtique altaria circum
Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi;
ipse iugis Cynthi graditur mollique fluentem
fronde premit crinem fingens atque implicat auro,
tela sonant umeris: haud illo segnior ibat
Aeneas, tantum egregio decus enitet ore.

Just as when Apollo leaves wintry Lycia and the flowing Xanthus and arrives at maternal Delos, he renews the songs and the Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar as they mingle together around the altars; he himself strides over the mountain ridges of Cynthus and smoothes his flowing hair with gentle leaves and dresses it in gold, his weapons clang on his shoulder. Aeneas walked no less lightly, such goodliness shining from his beauteous face.

Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of the Celtic etymology of the word Pict here.

Burglar alarms and crepitu alarums

I bravely saw off a burglar last night. I glared at him through my bedroom window and he stopped trying to steal my bike, which pleased me. The sophisticated alarm system which alerted me to the attempted pillaging of property was my squeaky front gate. Ancient Roman alarm systems relied on something only arguably a touch more sophisticated: the flappability of their geese.

It is the early fourth century BCE. Rome is under attack from Gauls. The Roman infantry have fought as hard as they can, but the night watchmen have failed in their duty. The Gauls, under cover of darkness, believe they are heading up the Capitoline Hill to the Roman citadel and an easy victory. But a Gaulish invader puts a foot wrong: he disturbs a goose.¹

My favourite thing about this story of the geese saving Rome is not the geese per se, but rather the vocab surrounding the geese. Livy tells us that it was the ‘alarum crepitu’ of the geese which roused the Roman commander Manlius just in time for him to see off the wrong footed Gauls and save the city.² This phrase translates as ‘by the beating of the wings’, alarum being the word for wings. Whilst alarum has come to be a perfectly good English word for an alarm or call to arms, it has also lost a vowel to become the word — have you guessed it yet? — alarm!

So, whilst I have no sophisticated anti-bike-theft alarm system, if a wing beat was good enough for Ancient Rome, then a squeaky gate is good enough for me. And perhaps an extra chain on my bike.

¹ Not just any old goose, but one of a gaggle sacred to Juno.

² Livy Ab Urbe Condita V, 47.

Latin mottos for swimmers

In honour of my local open air swimming pool, Jesus Green Lido, reopening for Summer this coming Saturday, I am writing some swimming related posts.

This one is for all my Did you swim today? chums: I am constantly delighted, encouraged and inspired by your endeavours in pools, lakes, rivers and oceans, at every point of the achievement spectrum. You guys make me want to spend more time in the water and I thank you for that.

Here is a selection of Latin mottos all about swimming that I made up, with some inspiration from real mottos.

Natando amicitia friendship through swimming. Very appropriate for DYST, I feel.

Nunc est natandumNow is the time for swimming! This is inspired by the more common nunc est bibendum, now is the time for drinking. Also a good motto.

Fortius natando stronger through swimming. This and the three following are variations on fairly common mottos.

Fortis et liber natandostrong and free through swimming.

Ab aqua libertasfrom water comes freedom.

Natando libertas freedom through swimming.

Per aquas ad astra through water to the stars, inspired by the military motto per ardua ad astra, through hardship to the stars.

Ad natandum paratusready for swimming. Another military inspired one. Utrinque paratus, ready for anything, is the motto of the Parachute Regiment.

Sic itur ad aquas this is the way to the water. This is based on another military motto, this is the way to the stars.

Citius, swimmius, fortius — not quite the Olympic motto, citius, altius, fortius, faster, higher, stronger, but you get the picture. NB swimmius is not actually a Latin word. I made it up.

Animus in natando liber in swimming an independent spirit. The original reads animus in consulendo liber, in counsel an independent spirit, a phrase from the Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato. It is the motto of NATO.

Fiat piscina/ stagnum/ colymbuslet there be a pool (man-made)/ pool (naturally occurring)/ swimming pool. Piscina sounds like the French word for swimming pool, piscine, while stagnum is a general word for any expanse of enclosed water, but sounds to an English ear a little less wholesome. I had never come across the word colymbus before researching this post. It definitely means swimming pool, but it is also the name of a type of oyster. My phrase is a play on the biblical Fiat lux, let there be light.

Fluctuat nec mergitur he/she/it floats and does not sink. This is the motto of Paris, originally an island in the River Seine. Surely a good swimming motto.

Gens una sumus natando we are one family through swimming.

Semper natansalways swimming.

I hope you have enjoyed these!

If you want to adapt any of them, you can play around with the word order in any of the phrases, but if you want to swap words across the phrases you will have to check the grammar — just ask!

Please let me know if you do use any of them — I would be delighted to hear from you and I would love to see pics of them in action!

Please do share any other swimming mottos you may have come across in the comments below.

Happy swimming! [I’m now wondering how best to say that in Latin…]

Roman times…

Walking with my daughter to school, one of our pleasures is spotting and naming new plants. ‘This is lavender, Mummy — it smells of lavender, and it’s minty!’ Yes…

Given the sunshine we have been having, there are suddenly many more plants opening up and sharing their colours and scents with the world, and this thought always puts me in mind of the Latin names for months (it does!). The current month, April, is Aprilis in Latin, which comes from the verb aperio, to open. Lewis and Short (THE Latin dictionary) gives the definition of Aprilis as “the month of April (as the month in which the earth opens and softens)”.

How lovely! Just like the tulips and violets and lavenders which brighten our walks to and from school.