Mention a revival of Latin to collegians today and they're likely to chant, "toga, toga." Some young parish priests, it is said, don't know Dominus vobiscum from Dom DeLuise.
Such is the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
But the dead language seems to be in for yet another incarnation. A renewed breed of Latin lover is lending an ear to the words and phrases once spoken by Caesars, poets and, appropriately, pompous ancient Romans. They're called "Latin-droppers."
Akin to name-droppers -- with similar motivation -- they'll flash a toothy William F. Buckley Jr. grin or tip their George Will spectacles with learned pretention and interject an absit invidia or an e contrario into any conversation. The results: People are startled, bullied, gagged or impressed. Others with a little schoolboy Latin turn immediately defensive.
"When you go into Latin, you knock people dead . . . you feel as though you can just snow anybody in the room," says Eugene Ehrlich, author of Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (Harper & Row, $14.95). "It's the whole business of changing the debate by changing the language -- what the Reagan people do when they call MX missiles the Peacekeeper."
Ehrlich, the chief editor of the Oxford American Dictionary and senior lecturer of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, came by his credentials via "Third Avenue, near East Midtown -- a tough section of New York." He credits his embrace of linguistics to a college professor's warning. "I had a terrible accent," says Ehrlich, 62, recalling that two of the original Dead-End Kids were his childhood buddies. "When I went to college, I was told I'd never get a job as a teacher if I didn't speak better."
Today, says Ehrlich, with the precise articulation of a scholar, "I slip into Latin and French sometimes without being able to help myself -- and, yes, it can be pompous."
The motive of Latin-droppers, he says, is "to decorate, to show one is pretty smart, pretty well educated. Buckley is a real one. So is George Will. They just love to throw in a little Latin, to say 'ex cathedra' instead of 'with authority,' to use 'circa' to impress. It can be a pain in the neck."
But Ehrlich defends Latin-dropping in the same breath: "A lot of people use Latin but with less show. We owe an enormous debt to the language in our own vocabulary . . . Curriculum vitae, for instance, means re'sume'. Guys like Buckley and Will and my academic friends will say it. Everyone else uses the word re'sume', which is right out of the French and even takes an accent. All it really means is our work and personal history."
Ehrlich says his original title for the book was "All The Latin You Need To Know To Understand William F. Buckley and Others of That Ilk." The publisher turned it down but, in the spirit of fairness and smart marketing, asked Buckley to write the book's introduction.
Feigning innocence of flagrant use of Latin, Buckley wrote: " . . . the few Latin phrases I am comfortable with I tend to use without apology. For instance, for some reason I find it handier even in idiomatic exchanges to say per impossible over against, say, 'assuming that the impossible were actually to take place.' "
Next to the book's scholarly yet humorous renderings of Latin expression, Ehrlich says he most likes that it reflects the currency of a language reputed to be dead.
"When you talk about delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) and you read the entry about using rhetoric to stir irrational passions to crush a helpless rival," says Ehrlich, "you realize they're doing the same thing to us right now in Washington. They tell us little Nicaragua is a terrible threat to us and must be stopped."
Latin's contemporary context, agrees Charles Briody, who has taught a course called "Latin for the Workingman" through the University of the District of Columbia's Division of Continuing Education, is the book's greatest value.
Briody, who holds three M.A.s (one in Latin from Columbia University) and was recently named by George Mason University to teach its Latin curriculum, tries to demonstrate the language's relevant connections in his courses. A "human rights activist" and Unitarian minister, he says most people are surprised to learn that Latin goes straight for the jugular of modern controversy.
Typically, Briody, 43, will touch on the 1st-century B.C. dramatist Terence's comment on teen-age pregnancy: Persuasit nox, amor, vinum, adulescentia/Humanumst ("Darkness, passion, booze and youth were responsible. It's only human").
*"One of our unfortunate inheritances from the Romans," says Briody, "is sexism." Sit non doctissima coniux, which describes one Roman's formula for a happy marriage, translates, "May my wife not be very intelligent."
Of the 17 students enrolled in his UDC course last summer, Briody mentions an octogenarian who wanted to "brush up on his Latin after a half century," and an accountancy professor who was "tired of snooty columnists" who throw in gratuitous phrases.
"I don't think Buckley will intimidate him anymore," says Briody, who adds that because Washington tips the scales in law, politics and, some would say, pretention, there are probably more Latin phrases dropped per capita here than elsewhere in the country.