MAGNA CARTA

Thomas Russell Wingate
September 2009



1


In a famous phrase, Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.”

In that sense, we are all Shakespeareans now.

2


Latin—words, phrases, abbreviations—is still utilized by anyone wishing to sound important. (The legal and medical professions excel here.)

Writers would do well to study, not Latin textbooks, but books in English which list alphabetically or thematically Latin words and phrases. This requires a good memory, but a writer had best have that anyway.

No one of them tells you all you need to know. You will end up acquiring several. Used book stores are indispensable.

Books of “foreign words and phrases” will prove helpful, but they are weak on explanation. Many English dictionaries contain such lists at the back, but they are too short.

No one expects you to compose in Latin. Its grammar is tricky. Latin-English dictionaries will assume you have studied Latin grammar; if you haven’t, their value to you will be limited.

3


Two documents of long-range importance were composed in Latin.

The earlier of these was sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. (It was signed by no one.) The Great Charter of Freedoms (Magna Carta Libertatum) was called Magna Carta in British English and the Magna Charta in American English.

In recent decades the American spelling (which took the definite article) has been abandoned. Magna Carta (with no article) is now correct usage worldwide.

The later document was the Declaration of Arbroath, sealed by Scottish noblemen in 1320, vowing “for, as long as but an hundred of us shall remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” The Declaration was successful for four centuries. It is regarded with affection by Scots the world over.

4


The Great Seal of the United States bears three Latin phrases—two slightly alter Virgil—and one Christian date in Roman numerals.

The new country needed to be respectable.

Why the court poet of the House of Caesar should have been esteemed by republicans eighteen centuries after his death deserves a readable dissertation.

5


Mottos are meant to be hefty. The fifty states and the District of Columbia chose theirs from the most impressive tongues available.

English
24
Spanish
1
Montana
French
1
Minnesota
Italian
1
Maryland
Greek
1
California
Native American
1
Washington
Hawaiian
1
Hawaii
Latin
22
(Kentucky has mottos in English and Latin.)


6


The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is inscribed in capital letters of unequal size. The imperative is from the King James Bible.

PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF LEV. XXV X


The Bell, cast in London in 1752, has been repeatedly cracked and repaired. It has been replicated. It has been taken on tour.

Its image has been placed on stamps, license plates, clip art, and large silver coins.

Liberty Bell 7 was an early manned spacecraft.

Americans cherish their oldest icon—crack and all. Its sentiments are clutched to hearts the world over.

7


Our protean English language is the great charter of freedoms.

We have issued it to ourselves—across generations, centuries, and oceans.

Astronomical quantities of English flow across the Internet every second.

English will never be pure, but it will remain dominant and liberating as far into the future as anyone can imagine.

8


Wikipedia has a fine article “Runnymede.”

There is an enlargeable photo of the memorial stone to President Kennedy, on “this acre of English ground … given to the United States of America…” —750 years after Magna Carta was sealed nearby.

Wikipedia continues:

“Visitors reach the memorial by treading a steep path of irregular granite steps, intended to symbolize a pilgrimage. There are 50 steps in total. Each step is different to all others, with the entire flight made from 60,000 hand-cut granite setts.”

His inaugural address was the first to be made to fifty states.

The Founding Fathers would have instantly admired this inscription:

LET EVERY NATION KNOW, WHETHER IT WISHES US WELL OR ILL, THAT WE SHALL PAY ANY PRICE, BEAR ANY BURDEN, MEET ANY HARDSHIP, SUPPORT ANY FRIEND OR OPPOSE ANY FOE, IN ORDER TO ASSURE THE SURVIVAL AND SUCCESS OF LIBERTY.


Print This Page