We've all been there. You're the guest of honour at an Oxbridge high table function, or maybe at a Lord Mayor's banquet or Royal Navy mess dinner. The table stretches out to vanishing point before you. Fellow diners include academics, clergy, minor royalty, captains of industry and an assortment of unknowns wearing large, jangly chains of office or rows of campaign medals. The table is laden with a cornucopia of delights, topped by a roast swan, or suckling pig with a large piece of fruit stuffed incongruously into one end or t'other. Silver service waiters stand to attention in the shadows. Your stomach growls and your arm muscles tense as you prepare to reach forward and envelop yourself in a frenzy of unrestrained gluttony, when a sudden hush descends, someone nearby clears his throat, and asks you to give thanks - in Latin1!
You are aware that all eyes are upon you. You are equally aware that you just don't know what to say. The pressure's on. Should you come clean - ask the nearest available Latin professor or archdeacon to do the honours? Or should you bluff it? Surely nobody would know, would they?
It Ain't What You Say...
From the back of the hall your words will not be heard clearly; indeed within earshot, few will be able to translate what you choose to say, so you should get away with quoting anything which 'sounds right'. You may make that Latin professor apoplectic with rage, but would he make a scene? Probably not - just avoid his glare during the meal. Presentation is more important than accuracy in this situation. A Latin grace is a short prayer, delivered in a solemn, measured tone. Clasp your hands in front of you and look slightly downwards - focus your eyes on the potatoes dauphinoise, if that helps.
Those Latin Words
You will need some words to present, of course, and to find these you will need to consider anything that sounds vaguely like Latin. Now, genuine Latin prayers of thanks exist, but these may be difficult for the non-scholar to learn. It's worth studying a few examples, though, as these will give you an idea of the length, structure and tone that will be expected.
We'll start with this typical grace used throughout the dusty refectories of Oxford and Cambridge. College-by-college variants exist:
Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua,
quae de largitate tua sumus sumpturi,
et concede, ut illis salubriter nutriti
tibi debitum obsequium praestare valeamus,
per Christum Dominum nostrum.
- Bless, O Lord, us and your gifts,
which from your bounty we are about to receive,
and grant that, healthily nourished by them,
we may render you due obedience,
through Christ our Lord.
This is surely taking the mickey. A grace of this length would certainly attract some comic value, particularly if the speaker were to pause for judicious lengths between each line, tempting diners to pile in to the grub, before continuing with the next one. Only a seasoned or intoxicated grace-blagger could attempt to make up one of this length on-the-fly. Fortunately for us, it is frequently abbreviated to the following:
Benedic, Domine, dona tua quae de largitate sumus sumpturi.
This is the length that you should be aiming for - something you can deliver in a single breath, and which you can get over and done without giving the audience too much time to dwell on its content.
There is in fact an even shorter grace, but this may be a little too short to blag - its words are quite distinctively recognisable:
- May the Blessed One give a blessing.
Alternatively, maybe an all-purpose prayer would suit.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
- In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Now, you could just go ahead and learn these. The trouble is, they're just not, well, memorable. In any case, you could be too full of aperitif to render the unrecognisable words as they were intended to be heard. Better to cultivate a way to generate your own. Remember, nobody loves a smart-arse.
Some Useful Sources
Far from being a dead language, Latin has established itself as an indispensable extension to the English language in a number of specialised areas, and any of these could be fruitful territory for the bluffer.
An explosion of scientific learning over the last few hundred years has led to the discovery of many new things which require naming. Medicine was surely the leader in this field, with thousands of terms invented to describe not only parts of the body, but diseases and surgical techniques too.
Just string a few terms together, taking particular attention to flow and gravitas. Remember to avoid commonly-known terms, like colostomy or diarrhoea, for example.
Spondylolysis medulla angioplasty barotrauma.
Swede Carolus Linnaeus's2 taxonomical nomenclature has given us a treasure trove of pseudo-Latin3. Each species of living thing, be it a plant, animal or one of those odd things in-between, has a unique classification, and very few of these are recognisable to the non-specialist. Who for instance could identify Turdus merula4 or Balaenoptera musculus5?
Just find the botanical or zoological reference of your choice and get cracking. One word of warning - bacteria are tempting, but avoid any which could be lurking within the meal in front of you, like listeria or campylobacter.
Dictyostelium purpureum quercus robur pongo abelii.
Other scientific disciplines using Latin, or Latin-sounding names include chemistry, geology and astronomy, among others.
The next time you're at the chemist, just take a look at all the names for the various lotions, potions and pills. They're all artificially generated by marketing men, of course; often they're English words which have been morphed into the nearest thing with a Latin-sounding root: Hedex for headaches, for example.
As before, avoid the most recognisable ones, like Paracetamol or Viagra, as well as anything to do with cures for indigestion or heartburn.
Anusol nivea gees linctus.
This practice isn't restricted to the pharmacy, either. This pseudo-science also extends to proprietary cleaning products:
Brovat persilomo domestos.
Marketing men also agonise over how to name new car models, and in today's global market, many of these turn out to have recognisable Latin roots:
Previa lexus laguna mondeo avensis.
You can probably find other artificial examples if you look. One particularly good source is company names, particularly following corporate mergers or rebranding operations.
Another discipline with a rich sprinkling of Latin, the judiciary requires precise definition of its legal terms, although many would see these as an attempt to confuse us.
Ex gratia affidavit ignorantia juris non excusat.
Thousands of organisations have Latin mottos. They're ready-made real Latin phrases, so they will sound authentic. Try combining them, or digging around for more obscure examples, to avoid being rumbled.
Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem6.
If you do want a phrase with a more specific meaning, then there are plenty of paperbacks on the market containing 'handy Latin phrases', particularly useful if you wish to render a modern phrase in that deadest of tongues.
Finally, why not ask a Latin student to translate for you a bespoke prayer? One h2g2 Researcher remembers fondly the 'Beer Grace', a cut-down version of which is:
Benedic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae,
quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es.
Per Christum Dominum nostrum.
Bless O Lord this beer-creature,
that You have pleased to bring forth from the sweet grain.
Through Christ Our Lord.
The Final Word
It's recommended that you end with 'Amen'. It is a prayer, after all. It tells the assembled that you have finished. Everyone will recognise it, and the subsequent explosion of noise - the laughter, the chatter and the clinking of cutlery and glasses - will drown out any protestations. Enjoy your meal.