Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Metaphor and Word-play in the Satyricon


Just a quick selection here from a Petronius PhD thesis of 1913 (James Walker Downer – Selections from his PhD Thesis- Metaphors and word-plays in Petronius (Baylor University Press Waco, Texas) of some of the metaphors and wordplays that occur in the Satyricon. They seem to abound in a text which is full of the vernacular Latin, spoken in causal everyday contexts by the ordinary citizen and the ‘lower orders’. There is a noteworthy postscript (VI. Observations and Conclusions) to Downer’s short text. It certainly locates the text in its own times as he attempts to relate the use of metaphors with similar usages of pre-First World War I America.

‘Whatever may be the origin of figurative language, it seems to be universally true that the speech of persons of the lower walks of life is the richest in the use of figures. Figures with the cultured are an ornament of speech and are often used with a view to securing greater beauty, elegance and force of style; with the unlettered, however, figures spring forth naturally and spontaneously, and are often unusual and telling in effect. Such persons realize that they are speaking in language other than literal, but there is no apparent effort on their part. Some unlettered persons speak almost entirely in figures. This habit may well arise from lack of wide vocabulary, and accordingly few words may have to express many thoughts. The figurative language of the old-time Southern negro is a good example of the foregoing principles. Many of the negroes rarely employ literal speech. Their expressions are so striking and unusual that frequently even persons who have lived with them from childhood do not understand their meaning; and to persons who do not know the negroes, their manner of speech is ridiculous and almost a foreign language. On a summer day, a friend of the writer walked into a field where negroes were at work. One of them remarked, ‘Boss we’s sholy got a new ingineer today’. My friend did not know the meaning of the remark, although he had been with the race from childhood. On asking, he found that the negro was referring to the excessive heat of the sun and to the fact that a new engineer keeps his engine hotter and burns more coal than an experienced one. A negro in Virginia town, who had lost his arm in a railroad accident, went to the authorities in Richmond to ask for the position of watchman. Being unable to understand his figurative language and misplaced words, they told the gentleman who had come to intercede for the negro to take that fool away from there and they would give him anything he wanted. He was appointed. The negro always seems surprised that his language is not understood, and after explaining his meaning by another figure, it may be, he will add with a smile, ‘White folks don’t know much no how’.

I wonder if members of the Roman upper classes would have had similar problems with the frank and lurid modes of expression during the lusty interchanges of freedman and slave alike that we find in the Satyricon. Here are some examples of the metaphors noted by Downer:-

Caldicerebrius – Hot Brained.

‘nec sum natura caldicerebrius’ I am not hot-brained by nature

Natus est. No one of us is born solid
nemo nostrum solide natus est. (Of the necessity for all to go to stool) ‘We have all gotta go!’

Olla - Pot.   (too many chefs spoil the broth)
sociorum olla male fervet – ‘A pot of confederates boils slowly’

Litigo. Having a suit with the winds – talking to one’s self, giving one’s self pointless bother.
ecce autem,ego dum cum ventis litigo, intravit senex
Lo and behold, in came an old man while I was muttering inanely to myself

Sauciae. Wounded by weapons (or drink/wine)= smashed
interim mulieres sauciae inter se riserunt ebriaeque iunxerunt oscula.
Meanwhile the women had got smashed and giggling amongst themselves exchanged drunken kisses.

Quadrigae – Chariots.  Already my chariots have run their last race, I have been gout ridden ever since.
iam quadrigae meae decucurrerunt, ex quo podagricus factus sum.

Asinum – Ass. Striking the saddle instead of the Ass (revenge on the wrong person when the target of one’s ire cannot be reached)
sed qui asinum non potest, stratum caedit

Asinus in tegulis (an Ass on a rooftop)
Something unusual or bizarre

Peduculum – (Louse)

in alio peduculum vides, in te vicinum non vides
You see the louse on another whilst ignoring the tick on yourself.


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