Light-ball Moment – Frank McNally on discos, donkeys, and learning Latin

An Irishman’s Diary

One of my latest lockdown distractions is dabbling in Latin, again thanks to the online language app Duolingo. And the most exciting thing I’ve learned so far concerns learning itself. Namely that the phrase “I learn” is, or can be, translated into Latin as “Disco”, a fact that makes belated sense of my tragic teenage years.

I should probably have known this already since I did study Latin briefly in first year at secondary school (just after the fall of the Roman Empire). Then mid-term, our teacher – a man of advanced years – died, and the language went with him.

I still remember the case endings for “mensa, mensae, mensam”, etc. But ironically, we never got as far as “disco”.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the other kind of disco was entering my life, at first in the form of the annual “Halloween Hop”, held during school hours, after a break in which we were first allowed to go home and change into our good clothes (assuming we had any, and didn’t have to return like lepers in the same ones we wore at school). And it’s no exaggeration to say that some of the harsher lessons of my life were learned at such dances.

There was a bit of Latin involved too, if only thanks to Status Quo, who were big at the time.

But it was also the era of the other kind of disco, a form of music designed to add mockery to the emotional torment you might be going through as your heart was trampled all over the dancefloor to the tune of some moron singing “Burn baby burn! Disco inferno!”.

And now, all these years later, I have had another language epiphany. This is not good Latin, I know – Dante would never have used it. But there is a case – ablative neuter singular, I’m told – in which “Disco Inferno” could have been a sentence in ancient Rome. It means, more or less: “I learn from hellish experience.”

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A phrase I do remember from school, but perhaps via maths class rather than Latin, is “pons asinorum”, “the asses’ bridge”. That was a name given to the triangle in Pythagoras’s theorem. The bridge part was the shape. The “asses” was the implication that such problems divided good students from dunces.

Paradoxically, it was only a bridge if you were smart enough to cross it. If you weren’t, it was more a stumbling block. And I must have made it over the pons asinorum all right, since I remember what it meant.

But I had to drop out of honours maths eventually, so somewhere farther along, there must have been a pons too far. They didn’t even tell me the name of that one.

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Those last two paragraphs were themselves a bridge, returning us to the subject of donkeys, which we were discussing last week, in connection with non-rhotic accents, via AA Milne's Eeeyore. That has since brought an interesting story from Cork reader Tim McCarthy. But first a short detour via Francis Grose, the 18th-century lexicographer whose A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), as I'm now reminded, includes the verb "to feague".

This was a practice in the equine trade once, whereby dealers made their animals look good for a potential buyer. The trick, in Grose’s words, was “to put ginger up a horse’s fundament […] to make him lively and carry his tail well”. The dubious practice aside, “feague” is interesting because it seems to be related to the word “fake”.

But anyway, back to Tim McCarthy’s story, which he heard from a Kurdish friend, and which in a way concerns the opposite of feagueing.

In the mountains of Kurdistan, it seems, along the border between Turkey and Iran, smuggling has long been a way of life. Often this involves teams of donkeys and mules carrying goods over heavily guarded mountain passes.

Silence is crucial to such operations, so for example, donkeys must go unshod, to prevent the sound of metal on rock.

The other challenge is to stop them braying. The trick there, Tim’s friend explains, is to apply a “dollop of axle grease” to the aforementioned fundament. The reasoning, apparently, is that to produce its trademark “heehaw” (or “Eeyore” if it’s English), a donkey must clench its fundamental sphincter. If it can’t do that, it can’t bray.

I’m not entirely clear on the science of this, but I’m assured it works.

And biology aside, on an instinctive level I can quite understand how, putting myself in the place of the greased-up donkey, I too would make the rest of the journey in worried silence.