You may remember the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the dead of the night, a centurion catches Brian painting the (grammatically incorrect) Latin slogan Romanes eunt domus on the walls of Pontius Pilate’s house. Revolutionary graffiti should spell the end of Brian—except, it doesn’t, because the centurion is angry about neither the medium nor the message but the grammar, and he makes Brian write the correct version, Romani ite domum, one hundred times as punishment. By sunrise, anti-Roman propaganda covers the palace.
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In 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale painted another Latin phrase, nolite te bastardes carborundorum, on the walls of the Internet, and once again the centurion became the butt of the joke by not getting it. “Aha,” at least one “think piece”/centurion said, “the famous phrase from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is grammatically incorrect!” He then explained that while nolite and te are okay, bastardes is a bastardized (ha) word, and carborundorum comes from an older, gerundive-like name for silicon carbide (carborundum). This, he concluded, reveals a greater truth about the book and Hulu show, one so obvious that he doesn’t question what it is.
You don’t have to be a classicist, or know Latin, in order to figure out that nolite te bastardes carborundorum is fake. You can just read The Handmaid’s Tale, which makes no pretension to its authenticity. Roughly two hundred pages in, the Commander informs Offred, who has discovered the phrase carved into her cupboard, “That’s not real Latin <…> That’s just a joke.” Atwood herself told Elisabeth Moss the same thing in Time.
As for why it’s fake, history supplies the facts, or more accurately, fun facts. Does The Handmaid’s Tale reveal anything this time? “It’s sort of hard to explain why it’s funny unless you know Latin,” the centurion—I mean, Commander—says. Oh. Maybe he wanted to add, fun fact never means fun for everyone. After all, the Commander’s revelation horrifies Offred: “It can’t only be a joke. Have I risked this, made a grab at knowledge, for a mere joke?” She had been reciting nolite te bastardes caborundorum as a prayer, hoping for meaning.
In the end, how real or fake the Latin is doesn’t matter for the meaning. Upon hearing the translation—“don’t let the bastards grind you down”—Offred understands why her Handmaid predecessor wrote the phrase, and realizes that the Commander had secretly met with her, too, because where else would she have learned it? The person who fails to understand or realize anything is, for all his Latin, the Commander.
Gilead wages a war on language. It bans the word “sterile” for men; instead, women are “barren.” Handmaids don’t have names. Women are forbidden from reading or writing, lest they start thinking. We see a couple of times, “Context is all.” Gilead encourages distance between what people say and mean, so that you don’t know what others are saying, and you don’t know what you’re saying, until you have nothing to say.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is a joke, but bastards are no laughing matter.
Four decades before The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell argued in “Politics and the English Language” that “political writing is bad writing” because it tries to obfuscate truth for nefarious purposes; language that is unclear is insincere. “But if thought corrupts language,” Orwell cautions, “language can also corrupt thought.” Once we become used to thinking in neat, ready-made packages, we lose sight of the need to think at all. Why elaborate on a weakness, instead of leaving it at Achilles’ heel? Such expressions are supposed to signal that we know a language, but we mostly use them when we don’t know what we’re talking about.
It’s easy for us, watching Life of Brian, to see the ridiculousness of the centurion’s response to Brian’s bad grammar; easy to be on Offred’s side against the smug Commander. But the language game goes both ways. We can laugh at and whine about a buffoonish politician’s weak grasp of English. Perhaps the deterioration of language is not a symptom of poor intelligence but an item on the agenda. Perhaps he is counting on us being too busy correcting grammar to take the message seriously. Perhaps this is how wars on language are won: without anybody realizing.
As Offred and the Commander get more comfortable with each other—and more reckless—they make fake words out of extra Scrabble tiles, “words like smurt and crup.” Perhaps they came up with something that can pass as Latin.
Here’s another relevant moment. Toward the end of the book, Offred goes to meet Ofglen, shopping partner and resistance member, only to discover that she has been replaced with another Ofglen, whose loyalties are unknown. When they walk past three hanging women, Ofglen says, “Let that be a reminder to us.” Offred has to make a quick decision. If Ofglen is criticizing the regime, then the answer is yes. But if Ofglen is warning Offred to behave, then the answer is praise be. Offred guesses yes. She guesses wrong.
Ofglen cannot say what she means. Offred cannot reply with what she means. When you stop being able to say what you mean, it can be hard to know what you mean. In Gilead, people communicate in platitudes (praise be, blessed be the fruit, may the Lord open) that not only negate the need for clear thought but also make it impossible. This is neither bug nor feature. It is fundamental to how Gilead and similar societies work.
The real question may be why nolite te bastardes carborundorum is in Latin of any measure. Probably, it’s in Latin for the same reason that a lot of slogans are gratuitously in Latin: the language has authority. Fakeness, then, compromises authority, but for the already powerless, that makes it the perfect rallying cry. The centurion delights in Brian’s errors and thus ends up helping him. The Commander so readily accepts that nolite te bastardes carborundorum is a joke that he doesn’t wonder whether Offred is up to no good.
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On television Offred has more agency and the Commander, less naiveté. In the fourth episode of the series, actually titled “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” Serena Joy confines Offred to her room. When Offred asks the Commander about the phrase during their next rendezvous, he remembers the previous Offred, who hanged herself. Sensing that he fears the worst, Offred deliberately intimates that she is also suicidal, and the following day she is allowed to go outside. The fake Latin gives her real power.