Latin or English?

My article about the Broadway play My Fair Lady was just published in SHAW: The Journal of Shaw Studies. I’m going to be writing a few posts about choices I made when I wrote the article.

One of the issues I thought about might surprise you: should I use Latin words?

Latin?

The Latin language has long been revered by academic writers. When I went to high school, I was taught to use abbreviations for Latin terms in my references: ibid. (“the same”), loc. cit. (“the same place), et al. (“and the rest”).

But why not just use English? That’s a question many scholars (including me!) started to ask. So I was delighted when the Modern Language Association (which makes reference rules for English scholars) decided to switch to English. (You can learn more at OWL.English.Purdue.edu.)

But the Shaw Journal stubbornly continued to use the Latin terms. &@#$%! I grumbled and argued. The Latin terms stayed.

Finally I quietly started doing my references in English, they way I wanted to. Guess what? The Journal published them that way! Other scholars did the same thing, and – mirabile dictu¹ – now we’re seeing far less Latin than we used to.

But one Latin phrase did find its own into my article. Ars gratia artis means “art for art’s sake.” I used the original Latin term – not an English translation – in my article. Here’s the sentence:

Shaw, hungry for fame and influence, had little appetite for ars gratia artis scruples about commercial success. 

I’m saying that Shaw didn’t go for pure art in Pygmalion (the play that eventually became My Fair Lady). Instead he concentrated on making Pygmalion a commercial success.

So why didn’t I just say so – in English? The answer is that the target readers for the SHAW Journal are Shaw specialists. Close to 100% of them would know what ars gratia artis means: it’s a term that Shaw himself used.

More important, it’s efficient. The phrase ars gratia artis is much shorter than explaining,”In the argument about pure art versus commercial success, Shaw always came down hard on the side of commercial success.” Three words instead of twenty.

There’s a third reason: using ars gratia artis was a signal that I’m an insider in the world of Shaw scholarship. It’s sort of a membership badge.

Let me give you a non-academic example of the same principle. I am an avid ballroom dancer (that’s an understatement). I often talk with friends about how my dance endeavors are going.

When I talk to non-dancing friends, I use ordinary words. There’s no reason to throw around the names of dance steps my friends might not know: chasse, telemark, or rond de jambe.

But when I talk to a teacher or another dancer, it’s much quicker to say “Let’s work on our telemark” than “Let’s practice the fox trot reverse step where I do a heel turn while you travel around me.” One word instead of sixteen.

This attention to who will be reading your work is one of the marks of a professional writer. You’d be surprised how many people don’t think about it!

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¹”wonderful to tell”

Jean and her partner dancing

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2 thoughts on “Latin or English?

  1. AvatarWilliam Vietinghoff

    You would think that out of the millions of people who have watched Metro-Goldwyn movies and seen their logo, that thousands would have looked up the meaning of “ars gratia artis” surrounding the lion. But who know?

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    I guess people didn’t know what it meant when they saw it on the silver screen! One person in my writing group was confused by it. (I was surprised too!)

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