Classical Languages as Euphemism

When working on a translation recently, I came across an interesting gloss in A Compendious Syriac Dictionary, edited by J. Payne Smith (Margoliouth). Under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ (qanyā), we see the following:


The gloss that drew my attention was the final one: virga virilis. Or, in plain English: “a penis”. What drew my attention was the retention of the Latin phrase in a Syriac-English dictionary (for those unaware, this dictionary is an abbreviated version of a Syriac-Latin Dictionary, the magnificent two-volume Thesaurus Syriacus edited by R. Payne Smith).

Unsurprisingly, virga virilis is one of the definitions that shows up under the entry for ܩܢܝܐ in the Thesaurus Syriacus (Vol. 2, col. 3654, gloss #6). The Compendious Syriac Dictionary translates all the other definitions into English, so the only apparent reason for this “euphemistic” translation is that the editor apparently wanted to avoid the embarrassment of using a “vulgar” word like penis in the dictionary entry. Thus, the Latin translation stood in as a substitute.

Apparently this was a somewhat practice for the late Victorian era, as this phenomenon also appeared in both Greek and Latin dictionaries, and in English translations of various works. E.A. Wallis Budge’s translation of Bar Hebraeus’ “Laughable Stories”, for example, frequently translates the more vulgar “stories” into Latin, which leaves Latin paragraphs interspersed throughout an otherwise completely English translation.

Primarily I think this practice is humorous because of what it suggests: that somehow it’s less vulgar to only render something in Latin rather than in English. Then again, considering the etymology of vulgar as “common” or “ordinary usage,” technically it is less vulgar to use Latin instead of English since Latin would be less commonly used/understood.

On the other hand, though, given the likely audiences of these works–people who are likely to know multiple languages, including Latin–what purpose is this really serving? It’s not like the Compendious Syriac Dictionary was ever going to be a NYT Bestseller or end up in the hands of impressionable youths searching for dirty words in Syriac.