Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Many of you keen feminist readers who happen to have read “The Handmaid’s tale” by Margaret Atwood will have perchance come across these words. In the story, it is found scrawled inside the cupboard in the main character’s bedroom. It is understood to be a message of defiance – to inspire hope to those who encounter hardship. In the story, it carries extra symbolic value, since under the rule of the Republic of Gilead, no messages are allowed to be written on the walls, let alone one that actively promotes rebellion against the regime. It is therefore, by that fact alone, a controversial and forbidden message. One does not need to understand its “meaning” to see that it is one of defiance, and encouragement. Its taboo nature is observed and pondered by our character throughout numerous chapters of the book, even used as a prayer. But what exactly does it mean?

Supposedly it means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” This would indeed inspire an air of confidence (there is a strange significance in saying a common aphorism or saying in a different language, it endows the speaker with an air of intellectual profundity and confidence unlike when spoken in common English). A common problem is however, that most people feel, when they speak in languages they know little about, they feel that they do not need to understand what is properly being said, because of a keen, effort-saving desire to accept it at face value. And if it sounds clever, then it probably is. Alas – this is where they are wrong. The truth is, it doesn’t mean that at all.

In fact, the saying itself doesn’t make any sense. As any Latin expert will tell you, “Carborundorum” is not an actual word. Even the Commander in the novel, who tells us the phrase’s intended meaning explains that it is actually a “joke”. The “joke” here lies in the fact that “carborundorum” supposedly resembles a genitive plural of “carborundum”. However “Carborundum” itself is not a Latin word – it is actually the name for a composite material consisting of Silicon carbide – a contraction of “Carbon” and “Corundum”. So it’s not an actual word. “Nolite” too is used incorrectly because while it is a negative imperative meaning “Do not...!”, it is one that takes the infinitive form of the verb. Not the gerundive. In short, this whole phrase is meaningless. Not real Latin at all.

For those of you who want to know how one would really say “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”, then the correct way would be “Nolite permittere te bastardes opprimere”. That’s quite a mouthful, I know. Well, there are many different variations, but for those who insist on saying it correctly, just know that however noble you may find the slogan, you are not actually communicating the intended message. If you were to speak these words to real Romans, none of them would understand what you were saying. You may as well be saying to them “Don’t rub cheese in your hair!”
If you should wish to inspire real motivation in a person who is struggling against life and its hardships, or facing prejudice and derogatory sneers from their adversaries, do not say “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”. Because what it really means, is that while you are trying to come across as cultured and intelligent, the truth is, you do not really understand Latin.

Benjamin Stevens.

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