Modern Latin dictionary becomes 'liber venditissimus'

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

VATICAN CITY -- Some may consider Latin a dead language, but a dictionary of modern Latin published by the Vatican has become a "liber venditissimus" -- a best seller.

It is a project to keep the language updated, even if they didn't have dishwashers, discos and miniature golf in Roman times.

The Vatican's publishing house has just come out with a combined edition of the Latin-Italian dictionary after two earlier volumes, one covering the letters A-L and the second M-Z, sold out. Five hundred copies have been printed with a sale price of $115.

"There's still life out there," said the Rev. Claudio Rossini, director of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

The two volumes contain some 15,000 modernized Latin words -- many of them compounds of existing Latin words. Dishwasher is "escariorum lavator" and disco is "orbium phonographicorum theca."

A committee is now working on a new volume, adding mainly words from the computer and information fields. Publication is expected in two or three years.

Science, et cetera

Behind the project is the Vatican's Latin Foundation, set up by Pope Paul VI in the 1970s to help keep Latin alive in the Roman Catholic Church. Latin's use had started to wane seriously after the Vatican decreed that Mass could be celebrated in local languages.

Pope John Paul II has often lamented his own clerics no longer speak Latin, which is offered as an optional course in many seminaries around the world.

The dictionary is more than a scholarly exercise. The Vatican needs it for encyclicals and other documents on the sciences in what is still the official language, although Italian is the working language at the Vatican.

"It's useful," said the Rev. Reginald Foster, the pope's Latin expert. "We need it around here. The question is, 'Does anyone out there understand it?"'

Even the Vatican has not been immune from slip-ups. The misspelling of the Latin word for Sweden on a Vatican stamp commemorating the pope's trip to Scandinavia raised eyebrows among the hard core of Latin experts.

Italians at the Vatican noted the dictionary keeps up with the times in Italy, with entries for soccer, organized crime and politics.

A debate is swirling in Italy over whether lawmakers, including the premier, should be protected from prosecution. The dictionary notes that "immunitas" was spoken about by Julius Caesar.

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