Nunc est bibendum!

IT IS NOT OFTEN in these troubles, violent times that a news item is so cheering it brings to mind the happy phrase Nunc est bibendum! -- the Latin equivalent of "I'll drink to that!" -- but we happened across one such item just the other day.

What's the happy news? We'll get to that eventually, but first it is worth a second to take a closer look at Nunc est bibendum as a piece of grammar and poetry. Literally, the phrase can be translated "Now is the drinking," or, to render it more smoothly for English speakers, "Now's the time for drinking." But anyone who studied the passive periphrastic construction back in Miss Beasley's Latin 10A knows that the combination of the verb est and the gerundive (such as bibendum ) conveys a sense of obligation (it can be translated as "must" or "have to") -- and gives the Horatian toast a whole new dimension.

What's the new dimension? We'll get to that eventually, but first it is worth a second to take a closer look at the passive periphrastic construction -- that lovely piece of Latin lore in which lots of meaning is conveyed in few words.

Even those who have forgotten how to conjugate amo may remember, from their history classes, the famous passive periphrastic which an early right-wing senator, Cato the Elder, used to roar at the end of every hawkish speech he thundered in the Roman Forum: Carthago delenda est! ("Carthage must be destroyed!") And even those schooled during the post-Sputnik years when -- o tempora! o mores! -- mathematics was emphasized at the expense of language can probably remember another example of this neat little construction. The abbreviation "QED" at the end of each geometric proof is in fact a passive periphrastic: Quod Erat Demonstrandum, or "which had to be proved."

And so Horace's nunc est bibendum! involves far more than the pleasant declaration that the times are good enough to warrant a toast. Horace, who wrote the line in 30B.C. after his friend Augustus Caesar had defeated Antony and Cleopatra to become unchallenged potentate of the entire known world, used the passive periphrastic to stress the importance of Augustus' victory. Nunc est bibendum conveys obligation: This news is so marvelous we are positively obliged to break out the best champagne in the house and celebrate all night long.

Oh, yes, we promised to tell you about the good news that brought Horace's toast to mind. It doesn't quite rank with the Battle of Actium in historic value, but it's something: Schools around the country report sharply increasing enrollment in Latin classes. So many high school kids want to take Latin that there is actually, mirable dictu!, a shortage of Latin teachers.

Before we start our burst of bibendum over this felicitous development, it is necessary to add the caveat that the boom stems from dreary utilitarian interests that have little to do with the esthetics of the Latin language. According to U.S. News and World Report, some specialists did some studies and discovered -- as all of Miss Beasley's alumni already knew -- that Latin gives kids a stronger grasp of English and thus improve scores on college entrance exams.The kids, ergo, want Latin.

Some of these budding Latinists may get bogged down in perpetuum on the rigors of "hic, haec, hoc" or the complex mysteries of the ablative absolute and the partitive genitive. That having been said, though, the better part of them will probably come to know the sheer Horatian joy of this delightful language and its literature.

Just think! American high school students once again will gasp at the spectacular alliterations of Ennius (O Tite Tati tute tibi tanta tyranni tulisti! -- a line that loses everything in translation), sigh at the haunting love songs of Tibullus (Tu nocte vel atra lumen, et in solis tu mihi turba locis -- "you are my light on the darkest night, you are my company in lonely places"), and snort at the ludicrous medieval poets who wrote Latin that rhymes (Venit mors velociter, rapit nos atrociter -- "Death comes with velocity and rapes us -- an atrocity!").

A whole generation of Americans who thought rhythm was invented by Ringo Starr will work their way through the rich, satisfying sonorities of the dactylic hexameter (Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris. ) Kids who thought racy literature was invented by Hugh Hefner will read Terence's X-rated comedies -- and since English versions are bowdlerized, the school board will never catch on. Students who thought cowboy talk was invented by John Wayne will discover that great scene in the Aeneid where a horseman, hearing the bad guys in rapid approach, urges his sidekick to facere vestigia -- i.e., "make tracks."

If the next generation has a few years with the mater linguarum, the reading public might be spared some of the inanities that crop up today in the work of otherwise talented American writers. Nobody who knows Latin, for example, would commit the common crime of using the adjective "penultimate" to mean "extreme" or "final." Any Latinist knows the prefix "pen" comes from paene ("almost") -- as in peninsula, which means "almost an island" -- and thus penultimate means "almost the ultimate," or second-to-last.

Latin students know that because their teachers have taught them that the second-to-last, or penultimate, syllable of a Latin word is called the penult. Teachers always teach that because they want to pass on every Latin teacher's favorite joke, the classic bilingual pun perfected by the distinguished Virgilian scholar George Eckel Duckworth.

Duckworth always made his students memorize and recite in Latin the lines from Virgil where the goddess of love arranges to have the dashing prince Aeneas and the voluptuous queen Dido meet in a secluded cave. The meter is tricky in that passage, and some unwitting freshman would invariably be tricked into reciting Aeneas' name with a short accent on the middle syllable -- "AEneas" instead of the correst "aeNEas."

"You are WRONG, sir!" Duckworth would roar. "It's impossible! I ask you -- how could a woman like Dido love a man with a short penult?"

Latin, in short, will introduce American teen-agers to a vast word that is terra incognita to those who know only modern languages. And a friendship with the lasting contributions of the ancient world will give a notoriously short-sighted generation an appreciation for the eternal truth that ars Longa, sed vita brevis.

Newspaper space is also brevis, and we have reached the terminus of this column. But before granting readers their nunc dimutis, we will append a brief addendum. If you do well, you can break into the refrain that has been part of students' post-exam celebrations for centuries: Gaudeamus igitur, guvenes dum sumus . . . FINAL EXAM

1. Translate: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

2. Find a hortatory subjunctive in this column.

3. Parse the Latin verb caveat.