This phrase comes from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and means: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. In this book, the handmaid Offred finds it graffitied on the bottom of her wardrobe by a previous handmaid in silent protest against the patriarchal totalitarian regime of Gilead; Offred does not know Latin, but draws hope from the resistance and solidarity represented by this encoded message. This book has led to the phrase becoming an important feminist slogan, one we frequently see on placards at women’s rights protests, along with the distinctive long red dresses and white bonnets worn by the handmaids.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum looks and sounds like Latin (and “nolite te” means “do not… you”), but is actually inventive mock-Latin. In ‘bastardes’, a Latin ending has been added to an English word, and ‘carborundorum’ looks like a Latin gerundive but comes from carborundum (an industrial abrasive, silicon carbide, which suggests the idea of ‘grind’). This technique of coming up with phrases that resemble Latin is sometimes known as ‘Dog Latin’. Atwood’s choice of Dog Latin for this secret message is significant: distorting and making humorous additions to Latin (which connotes traditional, masculine intellectual authority) represents a kind of rebelliousness in itself.
Many examples of Dog Latin come from schoolchildren learning Latin and inventing funny rhymes and phrases; Atwood has also said that this phrase came from a joke in her Latin classes. This may in turn have originated from ‘illegitimis non carborundum’, which was recorded as a joke among members of the British Intelligence Corps in World War II, and later became popular among the American military. More examples of old-fashioned ‘schoolboy’ Dog Latin include: “Caesar adsum iam forte, Brutus aderat. Caesar sic in omnibus, Brutus sic in at” (“Caesar had some jam for tea, Brutus had a rat. Caesar sick in omnibus, Brutus sick in hat”), and “iti sapis potanda bigone” (“it is a piss-pot and a big one”). Some phrases play on the English translations of the Latin words, such as “semper ubi sub ubi” (“always where under where”). Other jokes made fun of lists of Latin ‘principle parts’, such as ‘fallo, fallere, slipsi, bumpus’, and ‘bendo, whackere, ouchi, sorbum’. These examples also suggest the subversion of authority (in this case, teachers!) and parody the rote-learning of Latin texts and vocabulary.
Pseudo-Latin has appeared in other literary classics, such as James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (such as the very literal translation of “I think you’re a bloody liar, because your face shows you’re in a bad mood” as “credo ut vos sanguinarius mendax estis, quia facies vostra monstrat ut vos in damno malo humore estis”). The philosopher Leo Strauss also coined ‘reductio ad Hitlerum’ (reductively comparing what you are arguing against the Nazis), following the pattern of ‘reductio ad absurdum’.
More recent examples of Dog Latin include spells in Harry Potter such as “expelliarmus” (used for defence), Terry Pratchett’s “fabricati diem, pvnc” (“make my day, punk!”), comic names in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (‘Naughtius Maximus’), and Bart Simpson’s ‘Latin’ insult, “dorkus malorkus”. A bench inscribed: “ore stabit fortis arare placet ore stat” (“oh rest a bit, for ‘tis a rare place to rest at”), and a joke that the Latin phrase “sic transit gloria” means “nice car, Gloria!”, have also been popular on Twitter recently!
Academus Education is an online learning platform providing free Classics Education to students through summer schools, articles and digital think tanks. If you wish to support us, please check out our range of merchandise, available now on Redbubble.