Nuts, Trees, and Falling Distances

A taste for Latin jokes – who knew it was coded in the genes?


What’re you drinking?

The “How the hell are ya?” greetings done, the bartender gets down to business with his patron—newly arrived but clearly not new.

Gimme a martinus.

Although this is one case where the customer clearly isn’t right, the bartender’s correction is a little tentative: after all, this guy’s a frequent flier.

You mean a martini.  Just a little heavy on the final “ee”.

The patron sporting a toga retorts, If I want two, I’ll ask for them.   

This being 1958, the Ed Sullivan Show, and a Wayne & Shuster sketch about the murder of Big Julie—aka Julius Caesar—you can almost hear the ba-da-bssh.

Eight years later, my father is recounting this joke—this Latin joke—with great delight, while inveigling me to study Latin in my upcoming first year of high school.  And if this isn’t enough to entice me into the purely elective language class with the grim reputation, there are always the delights he remembers fondly from his own studies a quarter century earlier.  Translating Roman dispatches from the invasion of Britain apparently offers this sort of hysterical thing: Caesar pitched his camp across the river.  I mean, how could anyone resist?

I certainly can’t, although I tell myself that the outcome has more to do with my father’s force of personality than with me sharing his hokey sense of humour.  Regrettably, in just a year my Latin studies are cut short by a move to another city and a new high school that doesn’t think much of the classics.

Who did this?

The Latin teacher stands with his back to the room, looking at the board.  Behind him, a slightly tentative male voice speaks with that rising inflection that signals not a question, but, rather, a desire to disavow responsibility.  Uh, sir?  My mother?

It is 1990 and more cross-generational inveigling has been going on.  Not for choosing Latin class this time—no, Number Two Son is entirely responsible for his own self in that regard—but for writing something hysterical on the blackboard in said class.

Quis custodiet ipses custodes?
Who will clean up after the janitors?

A famous Latin quotation and a non-standard translation of (ahem) my very own that manages to capture the broad meaning of the original while making an atrocious pun.  Ba-da-bssh!  I mean, how could anyone resist?

Number Two Son certainly can’t, although, as he waits for the teacher’s reaction, he may be telling himself that the outcome had more to do with my force of personality than with him sharing my hokey sense of humour. 

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2 Comments

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Well, the humour (such as it was!) was mine and entirely advertent – although I guess it was his too, since he agreed to “post” it for me.

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