. Alas, not me: September 2023

29 September 2023

Wordplay in Colin Hardie's Latin Oration for Tolkien

In June 1972 Oxford University distinguished J. R. R. Tolkien by awarding him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony Colin Hardie, the Classicist, Inkling, and offical Public Orator for the university delivered a speech he had composed in Latin to mark the occasion. He was after all the Public Orator. Though I had known about the speech, I had never read it until recently. I thought it might make an interesting post for my blog. The speech contains a remarkable amount of wordplay and humor, things visible in Latin but requiring an understanding of English, Greek, and Tolkien that a straighforward translation into fluent English might obscure. So I decided to prepare a translation that aimed to convey that humor and wordplay, either directly or through additional commentary. A simple translation just doesn't do this justice. While I am working on a translation and commentary for the entire speech, I wanted to share one amazing piece -- eleven words -- of a single sentence, which left me baffled until I came upon Hardie's English paraphrase (not translation) of the speech. Given the explaining required for this eleven words of wordplay, I understand why Hardie merely paraphrased in English the speech he composed in Latin. Had he tried to explain the joke in the speech itself, he would have killed it. I may kill it myself in my attempt to explain it in the commentary.

First the Latin: "... perpessus esse videatur non dicam apotheosin sed certe apodiphilosin vel apophidiosin."

Now for my English, which contains two words left untranslated for reasons that will become clear: "I won't say that Tolkien seems to have undergone apotheosis, but he has undergone apodiphilosis and apophidiosis."

Apotheosis is the standard Latin word for "deification," but the word itself is Greek in origin: ἀποθέωσις. The Romans borrowed it directly rather than making one of their own. To come up with a native Latin word would have been easy enough. "To deify" would be deificare and "deification" would be deificatio. But the earliest citation for the verb comes from the fifth and sixth centuries CE, from Saint Augustine and Cassidorus, and the earliest citation of the noun i can find is also from the early fifth century, a translation by a Christian theologian named Marius Mercator of a letter by Nestorius. In both Latin and Greek ἀποθέωσις/apotheosis is the standard word to describe the deification of a hero (Herakles) or an emperor (Augustus). Hardie knew well that the apotheosis of heroes and emperors came after death, which may be why he "won't say" (all blasphemy aside) that Tolkien, very much alive and sitting beside him, has undergone deification. But Hardy is just getting started with the wordplay here.

The word he says he can't use leads him to coin new words that he can use. He decides that Tolkien hasn't been deified, but Dphilified or PhDified. Once he made this realization, he was off, using apotheosis as his model. Since apotheosis comes originally from Greek, doing a proper job of the wordplay means going back to the source for the others. So he coins not one but two Greek words that did not previously exist, and then borrows them into Latin and transliterates them. His made-up Greek ἀποδιφίλωσις he turns into the made-up Latin apodiphilosis, and Greek ἀποφιδίωσις becomes Latin apophidiosis. And so the words he puts into his speech to describe in Latin what Tolkien has undergone are apodiphilosis and apophidiosis.

Now pity the poor translator who is not in on the joke from the start. Looking at these two words, which were coined for the occasion and exist nowhere else, the translator cannot look up their meanings. So the translator must work by analogy to try to discover it. If the native Latin for apotheosis would be deification, then apodiphilosis becomes diphilification, and apophidiosis becomes phidification. 

This is no closer to where the translator needs to go, however, because the words still have no readily discernible meaning. If you know Latin, you can look at the word deification and work out what it means. But looking at apodiphilosis and apophidiosis and trying to analyze the parts of the word to guess the meaning of the whole doesn't work very well at all.

For example, commenting in Vox Latina 57 (2021) 402 n. 17 on the Latin of Hardie's oration, Marcus Cristini looked at apodiphilosis and apophidiosis and ventured the guess that the diphil in apodiphilosis and the phidi in apophidiosis were references to Diphilus, a Greek comic poet of the fourth century BCE, and to Phidias, the Greek sculptor of the fifth century BCE. Now Diphilus, whose work has almost entirely perished, was a well known, well regarded, and influential writer of New Comedy (think sitcoms or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), but his work has perished almost entirely. Phidias was the renowned sculptor of the twelve meter tall chryselephantine statue of Zeus enthroned at Olympia, which was one of the seven wonders of the world. He also created the similarly tall but standing chryselephantine statue of Athena in the Parthenon. Cristini cautiously suggests that Hardie is joking that Tolkien has become a second Diphilus or a second Phidias.

What I found troubling about this suggestion was that, all wordplay aside, comparing Tolkien to Diphilus and Phidias made little or no sense. I just could not buy that Hardie would execute this amazingly complex multilingual pun only to have it fall flat on its face because he compared Tolkien to the wrong people. If Hardie had suggested that Tolkien was a second Homer or a second Sophocles, people could scoff -- Tolkien would be the first (Letters no. 201 p. 156) -- but they all compose myth and treat the subjects that myth treats. Homer and Sophocles are in the right category, but Phidias and Diphilus are not. 

So I could not agree to Cristini's hesitant suggestion, but I had nothing better to offer. The problem is that he and I were both looking too hard and not listening closely enough. Allow me an illustration. 

Many years ago I was teaching Hamlet, and while I was writing something on the blackboard with my back to the class, one of my best students said she had a question about one of the footnotes.

"Which one, Lexie?" I asked, still writing.

"The one that says 'country matters' is a pun. I don't get it. What's the pun?"

I stopped writing, but did not turn around. I was concerned I might offend someone if I explained the pun.

"You have to hear it," I said after a long, silent pause.

Another long, silent pause followed.

"Ohhhh," she said at last. "Thank you."

Just as my student needed to hear Hamlet's pun to get that it, I needed to hear Hardie's. But I could not get to that point until I came upon Hardie's English paraphrase (not translation) of his speech published in Amon Hen 27 (1977) 11: "not by deification but by D.Phil. or (Ph.D) -ification." Ohhhh.

I wish I could have thought of a way to write this post without giving away the pun so quickly. It seemed best to just give you the pun in a form in which you could appreciate it in English and then explain how the pun works in Latin. I was trying not to kill the joke.

We're just not worthy. I am sure Tolkien loved it.

Chapter 5: "Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many"