Sui Generis

Some writers enjoy sprinkling bits of Latin on their prose the way chefs might deploy cardamom or sage. These are spices you don’t use often and about which you may be a little unsure. You use them sometimes anyway because, dammit, they’re in your pantry and this soup needed something.

Thus while diners are left to mull the clashing of allspice and tarragon on their palate, or the mysterious presence of kala jeera in their meatloaf, readers are meant at times to puzzle over the meaning of things like sui generis, a priori and ne plus ultra.

Words and phrases from Latin and other languages appear in English come in various forms. There are simply “show” words, like caveat emptor, which is often followed immediately by its English translation, let the buyer beware. If you feel the need to instantly translate it, then you’ve immediately lost the value in the foreign word’s use. In other words, why not just write or say the thing you know everyone will understand rather than sound snooty?

A more legitimate area of usage comes in places where there’s simply no English word that can do the same job. A great example of this comes from the German schadenfreude, which I’d say has infiltrated the lexicon well enough that most people don’t need a translation — although here it is anyway: “getting pleasure out of someone else’s pain or misfortune.” I have, for example, derived a fair amount of schadenfreude from seeing Canadian-born GOP candidate/reptile Ted Cruz have to defend his status as a U.S. citizen. Très amusing! (Note obnoxious and unnecessary French intrusion.)

The Germans have some other great words that get trotted out in the pages of The New Yorker and The Times and often require a lunge for the dictionary (or a right-click). One I can never remember the meaning of is sturm und drang, but I can see the appeal. It’s like dropping a bag of gold doubloons on the sentence and saying “Check it out, bitches!” You know it’s something heavy, something serious and something some Germans got worked up about at one point (think Goethe). Literally translated, it means “storm and stress,” and is used as a synonym for “turbulent emotion.” In American English, I supposed it can be substituted for “shit show.” In general, though, I’d counsel against its use unless, of course, you’re writing something for The New Yorker (and mazel tov if that’s the case).

Yet another category of Latin or other foreign word insertion, which I’ve actually already touched upon, is the Pedantic Plop.  Maybe you spent a semester in Bruges and can’t resist peppering your musings with Flemish idioms designed solely to make people stop and say: “What the hell is this?” Pedantic Plops may have the intent of fancying up a sentence, but in fact they function much like errant dog turds on the hiking trail. You can either ignore it, pick it up and deal with it or, as most of us might do, simply curse at its creator and move on.

Although I’ve often thought it might be a fun and interesting job to be a college professor teaching writing or some such thing, I do fear that reading too many essays and short stories from 20-year-olds would bruise my hippocampus. At that age, I was prone to shot-gunning every new word I came across into my submitted writings, thus inflicting on the poor prof a barrage of 20-dollar head scratchers ranging from ontological, atavistic and chiaroscuro to lambent, lugubrious and, who knows, sesquipedalian. Most writers eventually learn not to stampede for the most obscure word at every opportunity — a lesson learned even more quickly if you ever do any newspaper writing.

Sui Generis, by the way, simply means “unique,” so it’s hard to see it land in any other category then Pedantic Plopper. What’s wrong with “unique?” It’s not even a cool-sounding phrase, what with its porcine intro (sooey!) and the pharma-sounding Generis. “Taking Generis can cause your liver to fall out, your hair to catch fire and your eyebrows to morph into the shape of swastikas. Tell your doctor if … blah blah blah.”

A Priori at least sounds pretty cool, and wouldn’t be a bad name for a hipster dub-funk band (a genre I just made up). It means (hold on, I already forgot) … OK, this one’s a bit more complicated so I’m just going to past the Wiki-def here: Presupposed independent of experience, the reverse of a posteriori. Used in mathematics and logic to denote something that is known or postulated before a proof has been carried out. In philosophy, used to denote something is supposed without empirical evidence. In everyday speech, it denotes something occurring or being known before the event.

Clear as mud, eh? I shan’t be using that one anytime soon (except for my new band).

Finally, since I introduced it, there’s one of my faves: Ne plus ultra. Literally “nothing more beyond” it means friggin’ awesome in ‘Merican or, more specifically, the most perfect or extreme example of something. This one sounds handy for the Donald Trump campaign, but I’ll leave it at that.

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