Sunday, 4 September 2011

Terribile dictu! (Who's afraid of using a dictionary?)

A few months ago, at a workshop on 14th-century philosophy, I asked the 17-strong audience whether they used the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.  I wasn't expecting a rapturous response, as our coverage of scholastic terms has for various reasons tended to be patchy, but even so I was surprised when only two hands went up.  Now, thanks to one of my colleagues, I'm well placed to write a post with the rather surreal aim of encouraging people who read medieval Latin written by British authors to use the fruits of our labours.

Roger Bacon's mid-13th-century treatise Summulae dialectices – printed by Robert Steele in 1940 and re-edited in the 1980s by Alain de Libera, who had better qualifications and a second manuscript at his disposal – has now been translated by Thomas Maloney as The Art and Science of Logic (2009).  Anyone who has used this book will be grateful for the effort that Maloney has put into making the treatise intelligible.  On occasion, however, he admits defeat.  For instance:
“Under nonfusible body are subalternate species of this sort, namely, corpus terribile and corpus non terribile.  Under corpus terribile are species of this sort: salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, clove, and the like.” … I have not been able to find a translation for ‘corpus terribile’.
Maloney's decision to leave ‘corpus terribile’ untranslated may seem quite reasonable.  But this is one of the many places where Steele had given a different text, and here de Libera's change – a pseudo-classicization of ‘teribile’ – was for the worse.  If either de Libera or Maloney had looked in the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (1965), he would have found ‘teribilis’ defined as ‘friable’, that is, pulverizable.  And if for some reason he had still been unsure, a flick through any classical Latin dictionary would have revealed the relevant root: ‘terere’, grind, pulverize.

The moral of the story is that even intellectual historians would do well not to ignore our work.  The Dictionary will soon have been published as far as SALV–, and for the remainder of the alphabet the Word-List (for all its shortcomings) is evidently better than nothing.


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