Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fr Hunwicke Needs Your Help - A Linguistic Challenge

Since today is the OF feast of the Holy Family, the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, the great Fr Hunwicke, with his usual wit and erudition, has put up a bit of commentary on one of the hymns for the feast. The three original hymns (for Matins, Lauds and Vespers) were written by Pope Leo XIII personally, who was both a scholar of Latin poetry and a talented Latin poet in his own right. Although the Vesper hymn was basically left alone, the man in charge of revising the hymns for the Liturgy of the Hours, Dom Anselmo Lentini OSB, tore the Matins hymn Sacra jam splendent almost completely apart, and substituted the Lauds hymn with a new composition of his own. (Dom Lentini is the single most frequently represented author in the corpus of Latin hymns in the Liturgia Horarum, by a margin of four-to-one over Prudentius and five-to-one over St Ambrose.)

Fr Hunwicke calls attention to one change in particular; any linguistic scholar who may happen to read this is called upon to look it over carefully, and propose answers to his query either here, where I will be happy to pass them on to the good Father, or over at his own combox on his page.
“fessis”. Disgusting? You may wonder what is problematic about that word.

Leo wrote that Mary, a good Mother and a good spouse, gave a helping hand to both Son and husband,

.................. felix
si potest curas relevare fessis
munere amico.
[ ................. happy
if she can lighten, with a friendly duty,
cares for the weary.]

But, apparently, ‘fessis’ suggests to the Francophone ear not ‘weary’ but ‘buttocks’. So Dom Anselmo Lentini changed it to the problem-free word ‘lassis’, thus spoiling the alliterative “felix ... fessis” but sparing the blushes of that notoriously bashful constituency, the French clergy. (I will award this Blog’s Order of Chastity, Fourth Class, which authorises you to have a pink pompom on your biretta, to any reader who can demonstrate that there is another language in which ‘lassis’ is even more indelicate than ‘fessis’ is in French.)

Leo was a fluent French speaker. Yet, as a cultivated Latinist, he wrote “fessis” without a moment’s anxiety. What sort of cultural shift has landed us with an ‘emancipated’ society in which the word is too sniggerworthy to be printable?

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