Dog Latin: a comedy of errors
The term mother tongue used to be derogatory. Your mother tongue is the language your mother speaks, and she speaks it because she has no proper education. You, however, went to school and learned Latin.
Such was the case, at least, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when Latin served as the language of law, theology, and learning, despite having long since declined to the status of a dead language, nowhere in daily use except for schools and monasteries. The Classical Latin of educated men was elegant and complex, and its proper use was considered an art. Our subject today, however, is a different kind of art: dog Latin, an ad-hoc, frivolous, cheerfully incorrect form of Latin that arose precisely from the constraints of proper speech – as did a related form of cheerful incorrectness in poetry, doggerel. What do we learn about the rules of language – and the rules of the language arts – when we set out deliberately to ignore them?
In German, the term for this kind of Latin translates to kitchen Latin – Küchenlatein– and first appeared in the 16th century. (French has an equivalent: Latin de cuisine.) The Deutsches Wörterbuch, a historical German dictionary, defines this term as “barbaric Latin; properly [CR1] monks’ Latin in contrast to the revived pure Latin.” By then, it had long been clear that Classical Latin could not serve the needs of modern speakers, even in a reified context; humanists had worked to reform the language, but in the meantime, monks had made do. Monks used kitchen Latin while dining together in the refectory, since, in order to share gossip and communicate modern concepts, they needed to “update” classical Latin with words in vernacular languages, colloquialisms, and other such infelicities. The term was derogatory, rarely used without an implied sigh of disgust or exasperation.
The English term dog Latin arose during the same period and has the same meaning. The term comes from a trend among English speakers, in those years, for using the word dog to mean shoddy, debased, or mongrel, especially as applied to the graces of classical learning: dog-Greek for bad Greek; dog-logic for bad logic; dog rhetoric for bad rhetoric; dog-rhyme for bad poetry. Thus (as the Oxford English Dictionary cites) in 1581 a writer described a rival’s work as “dogge Rhetorike, and much adoe”; a proto-dictionary from 1625 has a listing for “dog-rimes, filthy verses”; and in 1711, Jonathan Swift mocked a contemporary for “His skill in that part of learning called dog’s logic.”.
Dog Latin often generates meaning by mixing words from a vernacular language with Latin words, morphology (the rules of word creation), and syntax (the rules of sentence creation). The result is meaningless in Latin, but the Latin elements are nonetheless crucial to the resultant meaning. Because English borrows words and morphemes from Latin, it is easy to create faux-Latin words that suggest English meanings, or to take Latin words that have different meanings in English and use them, falsely, in the English rather than the Latin sense. Yet because Latin differs from English in distinctive ways – notably, the elaborate system of inflections – flourishing these differences, sometimes as false English morphemes, sometimes as pure nonsense, brings to bear on the expression the abstract cultural significance of Latin.
For speakers who grew up knowing Latin as a language of classical authority, the very authority of Latin makes such irreverencies with the language pop. Shakespeare was mining comedy from these ingredients before dog Latin even had that name. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, a character mocks an overbearing pedant by corrupting a common Latin phrase with an excretory reference: “Go to; thou hast it ad dunghill…” The pedant replies, “O, I smell false Latine; dunghill for unguem.”
As centuries passed, Latin lost its status as a lingua franca, but dog Latin persisted as a form of comedy. The use of Latin in taxonomy provided a cover for impish definitions; famously, the cartoon characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner always appear with dog-Latin taxonomic names: Apetitus Giganticus, Eatibus Anythingus, Speedipus Rex. Its use in maxims gave an air of classical authority to sardonically unclassical sentiments. (Illegitimi non carborundum, or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” is good Latin, but a very modern phrase.) And for schoolchildren learning Latin as part of a grueling (if enriching!) slog through the educational system, dog Latin provided an outlet for juvenile humor:
Boyibus kissibus priti girlorum
Girlibus likibus wanti somorum.
One of the most famous scenes in the oeuvre of Monty Python – whose members had traditional state-school educations – involves four minutes of total commitment to a juvenile joke that renders Roman names as naughty dog Latin: Naughtius Maximus, Biggus Dickus, Incontinentia Buttocks. And while Bart Simpson would have learned no Latin at Springfield Elementary, he was entirely in character when he mimicked its pedantry to fling a childish insult: “Maybe because you are, as we say in Latin, a dorkus malorkus.” (As often happened with bits from The Simpsons, the phrase caught on.)
The word doggerel first appeared in the late 14th century, a little earlier than dog Latin. (The first recorded user is Chaucer; in The Canterbury Tales, after a character who represents Chaucer himself tells a story in very poor rhyme, another traveler insults his “rym dogerel.”) The word’s ending, –erel, was a diminutive, and by extension derogatory, ending borrowed from French, the language of the English ruling class. (Several other words with the same diminutive ending, such as cockerel and mongrel, first appear in English in the 15th century.) Just as dog Latin is bad Latin, doggerel is bad poetry, a social disgrace at a time when, as in Chaucer’s case, the composition of poetry was a form of entertainment and self-promotion at court. And as in the case of dog Latin, doggerel eventually became a comic genre unto itself – a self-conscious divergence from the rules of good language to produce a comedy of errors.
Whereas dog Latin barbarizes the language of learning by forgetting rules, doggerel barbarizes the learned use of language by adhering to the rules too much, producing rhyme without innovation, meter without variation, subjects without imagination. As comic genres, they developed both together and apart: the historian Michel Jeanneret brilliantly discusses the overlap, in Renaissance culture, between kitchen Latin and artfully bad poetry, specifically a genre called macaronic verse, which like kitchen Latin hybridizes language; on the other hand, the 20th-century masters of doggerel in English, such as Ogden Nash, certainly worked without consulting Latin. In both cases, however, the ultimate joke concerns education.
While children learn languages easily and without making the errors that adult learners make, Latin, as a dead language, is always an artificial rather than a native language for its speakers, with attendant obstacles to mastery and likelihood of error. In short, poor Latin is relatable. At the same time, in dog Latin and dog rhyme alike, an appreciation of the misuse of the rules requires an understanding of the rules; it requires a subject position past that of a novice who can only follow rules and toward that of an expert who knows when to violate the rules. Hence the emphasis, in so much of the best work in these genres, on the contrast between the serious (high diction, scholarly modes, classical motifs) and the juvenile. It enables us to occupy, at once, the subject positions of the giver of law and the violator of law, the teacher appalled by the students and the students appalled by the teacher.
My favorite collection of unintentional doggerel – the pun that follows is accidental but satisfying – is the 1920 volume Songs of Dogs. I came across this book years ago in a university library, and was quickly charmed by the galumphing rhymes and Landseeresque subject matter:
If dogs were fashioned out of men,
What breed of dog would I have been?
And would I e’er deserve caress
Or be extolled for faithfulness
Like my dog here?
A truer friend man never had;
’T is sad
That ’mongst all earthly friends the fewest
Unfaithful ones should thus be clad
In canine lowliness; yet truest
They, be their treatment good or bad.
He was just a dog, mister—that’s all;
And all of us boys called him Bub;
He was curly and not very tall
And he had n’t a tail—just a stub.
That semester, while teaching – I want to emphasize that this was years ago; I am no longer so cruel – I tried reading aloud one poem from Songs of Dogs for every student who was late. The students stopped coming in late.