All of us have had the experience of other (bastards!) trying to wear us down. And every classics fan needs a Latin motto…or at least a Latin email signature! Most readers make good use of Wikipedia but we just came across this page and found it fun and interesting. Id quot circumiret, circumveniat.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Variants and etymology
There are many variants of the phrase, such as
- Nil illegitimi carborundum.
- Non illegitimis carborundum.
- Illegitimi nil carborundum.
- Non illegitimi carborundum.
- Nil bastardo carborundum.
- Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
- Illegitimis non carborundum.
- Illegitimus non carborundum est.
- Nil illegitimo in desperandum carborundum
- Nil carborundum illegitamae
- Noli ilegitimus carborundum
None of the above is correct Latin. Carborundum is not a Latin word but the name of a mineral which is extremely hard and used for grinding. (See Silicon carbide.) The ending -undum suggests either a Latin gerund or gerundive form—and the idea of obligation (“Don’t let …”) is more suggestive of the gerundive—but the word is actually a portmanteau of “carbon” (from Latin), and “corundum” (from Tamil kurundam).
Alternatively, the ending “undum” suggests a verb in the second periphrastic tense, with the meaning of “must be” or (in this case) “must not be”, as in Cato’s the Elder’s famous speech-ender, “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). But this phrase has a nonsensical structure — the subject (which is “you”) does not appear (“illegitimi” is not the subject – the meaning of the phrase is “YOU must not be ground down by the illegitimate ones”) — and the verb ending has to agree in gender and number with the subject (“um” is the neuter gender singular ending) — all this is in keeping with the nature of the phrase as a spoof on ancient Latin.
Illegitimi suggests illegitimate to the English speaker, or bastardo likewise, but the Latin for bastard is actually nothus (from the Greek word notho (νόθο) meaning not-pure (used when referring to a bastard whose father is known) or spurius (for a bastard whose father is unknown). In addition, the gerund/gerundive (“carborundum (est)”) would probably require a dative (“illegitimis,” “to the bastards”), or even a double dative (“illegitimis tibi,” “to the bastards, by you”), were there such words to begin with. “Nil” or “nihil” is regular Latin for “not at all” or “nothing.” The forms with nil may be formed partly on the pattern of the genuine Latin phrase Nil desperandum.
The phrase originated during World War II. Lexicographer Eric Partridge attributes it to British army intelligence very early in the war (using the plural dative, or perhaps they meant ablative – it’s the same form: illegitimis). The phrase was adopted by US Army general “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell as his motto during the war. It was later further popularized in the US by 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
Use as a motto
The following entities use the phrase as their motto:
- The United States submarine USS Tunny (SSN-682)
- The weekly Alaskan newspaper The Nome Nugget
- Whitehorse Daily Star, in the capital of the Yukon Territory
- The Frazier Heli-rappelers in North East Oregon
- University of Idaho Navy ROTC Drill Team
- Portola High School’s Class of 1962.
Henry Beard in his 1991 book Latin for Even More Occasions (chapter I) offered some correct Latin for the sentiment, but did so in a section “Dopey Exhortations Are More Forceful in Latin”, which might be his comment on the merit of the expression.
Never let the bastards wear you down.
Noli nothi permittere te terere.
- Nil Carborundum, title of a 1962 play and TV comedy by Henry Livings.
- Nil Carborundum Illegitimo, in Principia Discordia from 1965.
- Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.
- Illegitimi non carborundum, in Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, page 29.
- Illegitimum non carborundum in Ten Thousand Men of Harvard, Harvard’s most-frequently played fight song.
- Nil illegitimo carborundum is a maxim credited to the philosopher Didactylos in his famous ‘Meditations’, in Terry Pratchett‘s Small Gods.
- Non Illegitimus Carborundum is the school motto of St. Trinians and appears on the school’s coat of arms.
- Mentioned with translation by the Member of Parliament for Twickenham Toby Jessel in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on 7 June 1993.
- Illegitimis non Carborundum is printed on a banner in the artwork for The Toasters‘ 7th studio album Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
- Nil carborundum illegitimis is said by Landon Kettlewell in Cory Doctorow’s Makers 
- “No Lite te Bastardes Carborundum – sign over the exit door of Irish pub Kieran’s in Minneapolis, MN.
- ^ Why Do We Say …?, Nigel Rees, 1987, ISBN 0-7137-1944-3
- ^ Illegitimi Non Carborundum page, at Santa Cruz Public Libraries ready reference, quoting William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary
- ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0378447/
- ^ “The Principia Discordia“. Ology.org. 1995-10-03. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
- ^ Department of the Official Report (Hansard), House of Commons, Westminster. “House of Commons Hansard Debates for 7 Jun 1993“. Publications.parliament.uk. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
- ^ “Makers“. Retrieved 2009-07-31.