Friday, March 07, 2008


Sometimes the smallest words in a language can be the hardest to translate. The word ‘res in Latin is a bit like this. If you look it up in a dictionary the first meaning is usually ‘thing’, but as my old Latin professor Dexter Hoyos used to say, 'res' hardly ever actually means ‘thing’- it is like a sponge in that it soaks up its meaning from the context in which it is used, and can therefore mean just about anything else you want it to mean.

To give you some idea of what I mean, here is a sample of the definitions provided in my dictionary: object, matter, affair, business, event, fact, circumstance, occurrence, deed, condition, case, advantage, the most beautiful thing in the world, wretched condition, good-fortune, what has happened, matrimony, dowry, battle, cattle, agriculture, administration of justice, play, story, history, reality, truth, property, possessions, estate, benefit, profit, interest, purpose, reason, ground, account, lawsuit, action, state, revolution, naval battle.

In my Lewis and Short dictionary the definitions fill 4 columns in very small writing (including examples of its use from Latin literature).

The verb-al equivalent of ‘res’ is ‘ago. The basic meaning of ‘ago’ is ‘to do’ or ‘to drive’, but like ‘res’ it soaks up meaning from its context; my Lewis and Short takes 9 columns to go through all the shades of meaning of 'ago'.

Again here is a brief sample: to put in motion, move, lead, tend, conduct, crucify, carry, go, stride, march, steal, rob, plunder, chase, pursue, hunt, press, push forward, advance, bring up, open, strike, make way, throw out, stir up, shoot up into the air, expire, exert oneself, risk one’s life, guide, impel, excite, urge, prompt, induce, rouse, blind, occupy, persecute, disturb, vex, attack, assail, think, reflect, deliberate, treat, represent, exhibit, exercise, practise, act, perform, deliver, pronounce, be idle, fight, be busy with, manage, transact, propose, plead, prosecute, sue for, give thanks, spend time, address the people in a public assembly for the purpose of obtaining their approval (or rejection) of a thing.

Just for the record, the English word with the most meanings is probably ‘set’ which (according to Bill Bryson):

‘has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participial adjective. Its meanings are so various and scattered that it takes the OED 60,000 words - the length of a short novel - to discuss them all.’

[Mother Tongue, p63]

1 comment:

Scipio said...

"Res" is the Latin tofu.