At the Wording Desk

Nunc est Bibendum
Here is the Latin text of the first quatrain of the poem by the Roman poet Horace, first Book of Odes, Poem 37:
Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales.

[ my translation] Now is the time to drink fine wine; now is the earth fit to be danced upon with free feet, now, my friends and companions, let us furnish the couch of the gods with feasts worthy of Salian excess.

What is the occasion for this ancient Roman celebration? Rome’s victory at the Battle of Actium, September 02, 31 BCE, that is, the utter defeat by Rome of Cleopatra! This is Horace, devotee of the first Roman emperor Augustus, writing a public celebration of the defeat by the Augustan army and navy of the forces of Mark Anthony and his lover Cleopatra.

Horace borrowed that famous opening verbal trio nunc est bibendum, translating them directly from his favorite ancient Greek poet, Alcaeus, who wrote νῦν χρῆ μεθύσθην nyn chree methusthen ‘now it is fitting to get tipsy.’

In the autumn of 30 BCE, news of Cleopatra's defeat and suicide reached Rome. That was probably the advent of the Horatian idea for this Alcaic poem.

Bibendum is a gerundial form of the verb bibere ‘to drink.’ The verb’s most familiar derivative in modern English is an adjective, bibulous ‘overly fond of drinking alcoholic beverages,’ chiefly used in humorous modes, for example, instead of saying a man is a drunkard, a scribe oblivious of cliche might write of his “bibulous propensities.” He is still a sodden booze-hound, of course, and shows up most nights “stiff as a fresh-boiled owl.”

Even rarer is classical Latin potator ‘tippler, boozer, drinker,’ rare yes, but still in occasional use in modern English.

Even more common today is beverage ‘a drinkable liquid’ which entered English through Old French beivre, baivre, beivere, boivre and modern French boire ‘to drink,’ all from Latin bibere. A Middle French form bevrage became popular in 15th-century English as beverage. Another derivative in extensive modern use is the English verb to imbibe ‘to drink in.’

Bibunt sobrii, potant ebriosi.
This little Latin tag by Phaedrus displays the exact usage difference in Latin between the two common drinking verbs, bibere and potare. Bibunt sobrii, potant ebriosi.  Sober people drink; drunken people slug it down like parched puppies. The Latin adjective used here for drunk ebriosus reminds us of the getting-drunk verb to be inebriated.

Gaius Julius Phaedrus was a writer in the first century CE who first translated Aesop’s Fables from Greek into Latin.

That semantic difference between the Latin drinking verbs did NOT survive into English where potare derivatives came to signify mere drinking of any liquid. Hence phrases like potable water ‘drinkable water.’

 Potion was first a drink, then a kind of special drink, perhaps mixed like a witches’ brew with an unsavoury purpose. This extraordinary use of potion led to a powerful variant, also derived from potio, potionis: namely the noun poison! It too was at first a tainted drink but began innocently enough in Anglo-Norman as poisoun ‘a draught, a drink’ and evolved through manifold forms like puisun and pouson finally to poison.

The Proto-Indo-European verbal root is *pōɑh- ‘to drink’ whose reflexes include ancient Greek πῶθι ‘to drink.’

A Roman Drinking Cup

Poculum is the ordinary Latin word for a drinking cup, a goblet, a beaker. It is the basis for one of the extraordinary Roman Catholic indulgences which rich Christians could buy in the Middle Ages. Imagine it. A poculary allowed you to get pissed, push your wife over a castle rampart in a drunken rage and still be forgiven, if you had purchased a document forgiving you for getting plastered and absolving you of any small sins committed while bombed, namely, a poculary. No wonder Martin Luther had his work cut out of him!

Your most obedient humble servant, little moi, coined a comic synonym for drunk using this fine Latin term. To be wobbling drunk, I wrote, was to be in the throes of “an interpoculary stupor.” Inter, Latin ‘between, among’ + Latin pocula ‘drinking cups,’ thus to be, so-to-speak, ‘among your cups.’

Yes, it is shameless to quote oneself. I wonder if there’s an indulgence for such egotism?

A Mortal Warning

Of course, in this age of political correctness, the sombre drones of temperance remind us that there is nothing funny anymore, anywhere, ever, on earth. Being drunk is bad.

After heavy drinking, men often cannot perform sexually, and this temporary and unpleasant state has been dubbed brewer’s droop.

If you drink, don’t drive. Certainly that is a very commonsensical admonition.

All that said, my final word to the abstemious bluestocking is a quotation from a novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749 CE), in which the learned English judge and novelist makes this observation: “It is said strong drink dulls a man. And so it will. In a dull man.”

Bill Casselman, January 22, 2017

Text copyight 2017 William Gordon Casselman


Increase your vocabulary by knowing some Latin drinking words with echoes in modern English

Bill Casselman