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Latin as the Verbal Weapon of Choice in English

Latin is the fons et origo of much of English literary phraseology and has been deployed to good rhetorical effect for centuries. Contemporary speakers are not as prone to utilize it as were language users in the past, due to the decline of Latin as a required school subject, but it is still available to be summoned up when the discourse invites it.

This was illustrated in today’s broadcast on NPR of “Morning Edition,” when the presenter used the phrase “one hand washes the other” in describing the scandalous situation currently embroiling politicians in Albany, the state capital of New York. From the strictly linguistic standpoint, this was precisely the moment to use the Latin original, manus manum lavat, and, moreover, to greater effect because of the paronomasia informing the phrase––a value lost in the English equivalent. Paronomasia is not only the stuff of poetry but the consummate implementation of the poetic function in language––the only self-reflexive of the six functions in verbal communication, i. e., the one foregrounded when words call attention to their own structure.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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