I have a complicated relationship with Latin.

Back when I was 9 going on 10, as I solemnly prepared to become an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, I memorized my part in the entire Tridentine Mass. From the marble-mouthed opening “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” (“To God, who gives joy to my youth”) to the mercifully succinct finale “Deo gratias” (Thanks be to God”), it was a phonological feat that made those three-minute French dialogues look like child’s play.

I confess I had no clue what I was saying. Still, kneeling up there next to the priest, our backs turned secretively to the congregation, the Latin liturgy felt almost magical – a secret language that only we could speak while all those poor souls in the pews sat in dutiful silence.

Then, only weeks after my first service, the church decreed that Mass would henceforth be spoken in English. All that relentless memorization, all those late-night anxiety attacks that I’d forget my lines halfway through the “Confiteor” evaporated in an instant by decree of the Second Vatican Council.

Talk about a bait and switch. I swore I’d never speak Latin again.

Or so I thought.

However you may view the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, you have undoubtedly uttered the phrase “quid pro quo” at least a hundred times since it first was quoted in a Sept. 9 text message from Ambassador Gordon Sondland to a distraught U.S. diplomat William Taylor.

“The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind,” Sondland texted, responding to Taylor’s concerns that Trump wanted to swap military aid to Ukraine for dirt on the president’s chief political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

With that, a catchphrase was born. “Quid pro quo!” or “No quid pro quo!” That was the question.

Then suddenly, late last week, the ancient phrase got tossed into the rhetorical trash heap.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats, derided by Republicans for having to “resort to Latin” to tarnish Trump, and worried that too many Americans don’t know a “quid pro quo” from squid with parsley and garlic, quietly rebranded their quest to focus on “extortion” and “bribery.”

They had good reason.

First, extortion and bribery are, in fact, what Trump was up to when he dangled military aid and a visit to the White House in front of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for promised “investigations” of the Democrats and Biden.

Second, as 33 members of the Authors Guild complained recently in an open letter to The New York Times, “Most people don’t understand what (quid pro quo) means …”

Similarly, in noting the semantic shift away from “quid pro quo” and toward “extortion” and “bribery,” the Times reported last week that “Democrats were working to put a simple name to the president’s alleged wrongdoing that would resonate with the public.”

It’s enough to make you wonder: Is Latin – from which more than half the English language is derived – indeed a dead language that no one understands? Of interest only to linguistic scholars and drunk tailgaters who scream “Carpe diem!” at the sight of a barbecue grill bursting into flames?

Or is Latin actually here, there and everywhere?

Lovers of language, lend me your ears. I give you Seth Knowles.

For the past 16 years, Knowles has taught Latin – and only Latin – at Greely High School in Cumberland. He also oversees the school’s Maine Junior Classical League chapter – a group of 20 or so Greely kids who consider Latin the ultimate in 21st-century cool.

“Latin is still very much alive,” said Knowles, a classics scholar who holds a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and a master’s from the University of Georgia, in an interview Wednesday. “It never really has gone away.”

Part of Latin’s allure for certain adolescents, Knowles said, is that it’s different. It’s a little mysterious. It attracts kids who like a challenge. Kids who enjoy nothing more than to “geek out with other Latin students” at state and national conventions that are nothing short of raucous.

Greely just hosted such a gathering of about 300 Latin students from 15 Maine high schools. After academic tests and a quiz competition called “certamen” (Latin for “contests”), the day culminated in a “spirit competition” where school delegations took this year’s theme – portray ancient mythical creatures – and ran with it.

“It’s loud and it’s boisterous,” Knowles said. “All the students are there because they love the classics, they love Latin and Greek, and they want to be with other people who do, too.”

Knowles’ goal is to have all his students be able to read Latin, not necessarily speak it.

“If they see it out in the world, I want them to be able to recognize what they’re seeing, to be able to say, ‘I know what this means,’ ” he said.

Bless him.

So, back to “quid pro quo.” Thumbs up or thumbs down?

“The meaning is incredibly vague,” Knowles said. “It’s ‘something for something.’ That’s literally what it means.”

Hence, Knowles’ professional opinion: “‘Quid pro quo’ is not doing the job.”

At the same time, he added, “Words like ‘extortion’ are much more direct and, honestly, a lot more powerful than ‘quid pro quo.’ ”

And where did “extortion” come from?

Where else?

“’Extortion’ comes from the Latin word ‘extorqueo,’ which means twisting something out, pulling something out of somebody,” Knowles said.

As in: One day, the most powerful man in the world tried to extorqueo a bogus, politically driven investigation out of a weaker country in exchange for military arms and an invitation to the White House.

Or to paraphrase White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney: We extorqueo all the time. Get over it!

Either way, quid pro quo or no quid pro quo, let’s hear it for Latin.

It’s the language that keeps on living.


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