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Dan Taylor: Latin lesson

Dan Taylor
Wildernest

The Lithuanian ice sculptors were eminently deserving of their first place award in the Breckenridge international competition. Their Latin, however, leaves much to be desired. “Milite est vita” is grammatically incorrect, meaningless, and culturally amiss; the problem is the first word. They were trying to say “Life is a struggle,” and as we all learned in junior high, the predicate noun or adjective in such sentences in English must go in the nominative or subjective case-form (think of “this is he”), and the same is true for Latin. Milite, however, is in the ablative or prepositional case in Latin and can’t fit grammatically or even lexically (it means “soldier”) into that sentence. Luctatio “struggle” would have been OK, especially since its basic meaning is “wrestling” or “wrestling match,” which gets us, at least metaphorically, into an athletic and competitive frame of mind.

In my opinion the sculptors should have used a Greek sentence such as “Ho bios agon estin,” which means quite literally “Life is a struggle.” The ancient Olympic games, for example, were not games, they were agones – “struggles, contests,” and they were serious, sometimes deadly serious, competitions. English “agony,” which derives from Greek agon (the singular form) via Latin and Middle English, renders precisely the sense that our Lithuanian friends were seeking. Moreover, “Life is an agon” is thoroughly consonant with both ancient Greek history and culture (but not Roman).

Let’s hope that these fine Lithuanian ice sculptors return next year for the Breckenridge competition, but with a grammatical title for their undoubtedly wonderful entry.


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