What I Learned Today

Possum. See below.

Possum. See below.

I was looking up Latin words for Christmas songs to share with my class tomorrow, our last regular meeting before the holiday break. For “In Dulci Jubilo,” (commonly sung in English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”), I kept finding Latin lyrics with interlinear German ones, or sometimes English ones. What the heck? Then I discovered that’s how the song goes. It has a Latin verse or two, followed, in its original version, by a couple of German ones.

On a few of the websites, the term “macaronic” appeared, a term with which I was not familiar. I searched it out, mostly because I wanted to know how it related to macaroni. Of course.

I will explain the derivation below, but first the definitions. A macaronic song is one written in a couple of languages. The term can also apply to attaching Latin endings to English words to make what’s called “dog Latin.” If you studied Latin in high school, you might remember this piece of doggerel.

Boyabus kissibus pretty girlorum.

Girlabus likabus, wanta somorum.

Popabus findabus, plenty madorum.

Kickabus boyabus outa backdorum.

Boyabus kissibus girla nomorum.

I always share the following high-school memory with my classes. At some point during the year, a wag would write this poem on the blackboard before our Latin teacher Miss Cope came in the room. I recall her sourly erasing the board and beginning class as usual. By the time I had Miss Cope, she’d already been teaching for thirty years and found her students’ sophomoric (literally) senses of humor beneath contempt.

Now, almost fifty years later, I’ve learned this doggerel is actually macaronic doggerel.

Continuing my search today, I ran across a famous macaronic poem called “The Motor Bus,” written by A. D. Godley in 1914. It concerns the new motorized omnibuses in Oxford, where Godley was studying, and attaches Latin endings to the words “motor bus” in a second and third declension pattern. It begins, “What is this that roareth thus? Can it be the Motor Bus?” I’ll let you look it up if you’re interested in reading the whole thing.  Then there’s “Carmen Possum,” playing on the homonyms “possum,” as in the New World marsupial mammal, and “possum,” a Latin verb meaning “I am able.” We’ll really get lost in the weeds if I start exegeting this one.

Now, for the key question about the derivation of “macaronic.” Macaroni was considered a peasant food, a humble dumpling mixed together from flour, eggs, and butter. Macaronic verse is mixed up, jumbled poetry, humbly suited for high-school sophomores.


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3 Responses to What I Learned Today

  1. Kathy says:

    Ah! I knew there was a missing link, but I quit exploring after the mixed up dough. Thanks for the rest of the story!

  2. Roger says:

    I’m working on a book about the Beatitudes and, of course, the central Greek word repeated over and over again is “Makarios” = “blessed”. Apparently “Macaroni” ultimately goes back to that. BUt then it became shorthand for “the blessed dead”. And then for a dish served at funeral meal and it morphed again into the poor person’s dish that you found.
    I recently read that “Bless your heart” is how Southerners say “F*ck you”. Not sure there is a connection, but it’s an intriguing trajectory

  3. Ted Howard says:

    Love you, Kathy. Felicitate.

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