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Philologos Gets Roasted — And Eaten

In a response to my February 20 column on the American Yiddish verb mufn, in which I said, “You won’t, of course, find *mufn *in any Yiddish dictionary,” Solon Beinfeld of Cambridge, Mass., writes:

“In Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 edition of his celebrated Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary*, we find ‘mufn (Am.), to move.’ Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary likewise has *mufn *with the same definition. Even the recent (2002) Niborski-Vaisbrot Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français has *‘mufn (Amer), dèmènager.’ You should have done your homework!”

I should have indeed. It’s highly embarrassing, especially since the Harkavy and Weinreich dictionaries are on a shelf that’s less than 10 feet from my desk. If I weren’t such an honest type, I would have quickly deleted Mr. Beinfeld’s e-mail from my inbox and pretended never to have received it.

Which brings me to another e-mail, this one from Arnie Richards of New York City.

Mr. Richards sends me a quote from H.J. Haskell’s 1964 biography, “This Was Cicero.” In this passage, Haskell describes how the renowned Roman orator, lawyer, politician and author was put to death by the Roman triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius (better known to most of us as Marc Antony) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, which decided to execute him. Getting wind of this, Cicero fled Rome for his country villa outside the city. “He was caught,” Mr. Haskell writes, “on December 7, 43 BC, leaving his villa for the seaside from where he hoped to embark on a ship to Macedonia. When the assassins arrived his own slaves said they had not seen him, but he was given away by Philologus, a freed slave of his brother Quintus Cicero.”

Philologus? And I had thought there was only one of me! Still, now that Mr. Richards had discovered an ancient bearer of my name, it behooved me to find out more about him, and so I consulted my copy of “Plutarch’s Lives,” in which Cicero merits a long chapter. (Born less than 100 years after Cicero’s death, Plutarch was, in effect, his first biographer.) From it, I learned that the triumvirate, informed of the whereabouts of Cicero, sent two Roman officers, Herennius and Popillius, to dispatch him. When they arrived, Plutarch writes, “They found the doors [of Cicero’s villa] shut and broke them down; but Cicero was not to be seen and the people in the house said that they did not know where he was. Then, we are told, a young man who had been educated by Cicero in literature and philosophy, an ex-slave of Cicero’s brother Quintus, Philologus by name, told an officer that the litter was being carried down to the sea by a path that was under the cover of the trees.”

If I had named myself for an ingrate and a snitch, at least he was a cultured one! Plutarch continues:

“The officer took a few men with him and hurried round to the place where the path came out of the woods, and Herennius went running down the path. Cicero heard them coming and ordered his servants to set the litter down where they were. He was all covered in dust; his hair was long and disordered; and his face was pinched and wasted with his anxieties — so that most of those who stood by covered their faces while Herennius was killing him.”

To add insult to injury, Herennius then cut off Cicero’s head and hands and returned to Rome with them, where Marc Antony ordered them “fastened up over the ships’ rams on the public platform in the forum. It was a sight to make the Romans shudder.” In all this, however, Plutarch writes, “Antony did show one sign of decent feeling. He handed Philologus over to Pomponia, the wife of Quintus. And she, when she had got the man in her power, inflicted all sorts of terrible punishments on him and finally made him cut off his own flesh bit by bit, roast the pieces, and then eat them. This, at least, is the account given by some historians.”

On Plutarch’s conception of Antony’s “decent feeling,” there is no need to dwell, except perhaps to observe that he would have found our contemporary concern with waterboarding puzzling. But what struck me about this passage was something else. I have often been asked why I chose the pseudonym of Philologos (most recently by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who inquires in an e-mail, “Since you focus on Hebrew, Yiddish, and other Jewish languages, why is your pen name Greek?”). Until now, the best I could answer was that it was the first name to occur to me when I started writing this column 20 years ago. Now, though, I know better. What more fitting description than Plutarch’s could there be of how a language columnist feels upon getting a letter like Mr. Beinfeld’s? Having to eat myself roasted is exactly what it’s like to admit in public that I’ve been too lazy to use a dictionary. Philologus, you are indeed a brother!

 Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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