In the first stretch of President Trump’s administration, Americans watched aghast while Trump alarmed our European allies with his noncommittal to NATO’s logic of mutual self-defense, presided over the leaking of British terrorism intelligence, and yanked the American strand from the fabric of the Paris climate accord, leaving that agreement threadbare and fragile. If Trump is, as he and his supporters have imagined, rallying “the desire and the courage to preserve” the West in that hoary clash-of-civilizations narrative, he appears to be doing a poor job of it.
This geopolitical fracturing has been a source of anxiety for my co-workers and me lately, but we are no Brussels diplomats, no environmental scientists. As one of the lexicographers at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (TLL), a 123-year-old and still-incomplete Latin dictionary, I write meticulously organized entries for this academic reference work alongside an international team of classicists. Encyclopaedia Britannica calls the TLL “probably the most scholarly dictionary in the world,” and after one year on the job, I’m inclined to agree. But my job may not exist much longer if the Trump administration succeeds in eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, the agency that funds the single American position at the TLL. In an academic parallel to the United States’ retreat from climate agreements and military alliances, defunding the NEH threatens to pull the nation out of the world’s collective effort to define — literally — Western history.
The TLL, based in Munich, is a comprehensive dictionary written by scholars and for scholars. On the shelf, it resembles the Oxford English Dictionary, but administratively, the project looks a bit like CERN, the laboratory for the study of particle physics. Just as the 22 member states of CERN collaborate on long-term research too costly for one country to undertake alone, the TLL is home to scholars funded by countries from around the world, among them Japan, Denmark, Italy and the United States. While collective efforts at CERN have culminated in feats like the observation of the Higgs boson particle in 2012, the contributing nations of the TLL have similarly celebrated the completion of the volume for the letter P in 2010 and the newly published account of ratio, “reason.”
Since 1984, the American government and the Society for Classical Studies have jointly set aside money for one postdoctoral fellow to contribute to this monumental lexicographic project. But Trump’s proposed budget, released in May, would eliminate this federal funding along with the rest of the NEH because, as Stephen Moore from the Heritage Foundation explained recently, the American public hates to see “so much waste” in government spending.
Of course, eliminating the NEH would not reduce government outlays in any meaningful way. Its annual operations, which last year cost American taxpayers less than $150 million, represent a percentage of the overall budget so infinitesimal that a calculator will probably show it in inscrutable scientific notation.
Even if the TLL runs on the generosity of a small number of governments and foundations, our findings detail centuries of wide-ranging human experience. By digging through our office’s 10 million records of Latin’s long history, I have compiled entries for words such as reminiscor, “to remember,” whose examples show how countless ancients recalled the face of a childhood friend or perhaps the guilt of a long-concealed sin. In my study of remisceo, I discovered that the first record of “remixing,” found in the prescient words of Horace, describes the combination of musical genres. During the first weeks of Munich’s birdsong-filled spring, I had the pleasure of documenting the history of nidus, “nest,” and learning how Romans understood the environment and its various home-building creatures.
Our dictionary is indispensable for understanding classical authors such as Horace and Livy as well as theological giants such as Ambrose and Augustine. As we finish compiling entries for the letter R, we will write the comprehensive history of res publica, the “republic” of Romans such as Cicero, who inspired the American founders themselves. When we complete our account of Latin’s T words, one of our lexicographers will chronicle the origin and development of that tricky theological concept of trinitas, the trinity. The stories of Western politics and religion are threaded through these words, and only by illuminating their histories can we clearly understand the texts of antiquity that still influence who we are and how we think.Sometimes it feels like we lexicographers are piling together a medieval cathedral, one that is centuries in the making and that no single generation — and indeed, no single country — can call its own. And perhaps this metaphor hints at an unfortunate reason for renewed political hostility to work like ours. Many politicians today do not look to a timeless cathedral as a guiding architectural analogue for their statesmanship. Instead of constructing a Burkean civil society of intergenerational effort, they now see their ideals reflected in a glitzy skyscraper on Fifth Avenue: a monument to a real estate developer whose megalomaniacal impulsiveness brings to mind certain Roman predecessors, and not good ones.
My hunch, in other words, is that Trumpists are not eager to eliminate the NEH and to undercut international scholarship out of genuine concerns about government spending or even a principled, radical isolationism. Instead, my job is newly imperiled because my research is not fast-paced and exciting. TLL entries are much longer than a tweet, more tedious than a campaign rally. When our president’s family history is told through gaudy hotels and neon-saturated casinos, and when his policy positions center on a hyperbolic “big, beautiful wall” and tales of urban violence worthy of dystopian action films, it should surprise no one that his administration is racing to cut its support, small as it already is, of the quiet study of old books.
Will the United States continue to support such research under an administration that fantasizes only about aggrandizing towers and border walls? Under a president who might gawk at the grandeur of the Colosseum but would never read the meditative letters of Seneca?
Perhaps, I suppose, we could rebrand the TLL as The Big, Beautiful Latin Lexicon and gild the edges of our pages. Then maybe — only maybe — would the words of Latin’s revered saints and ancient statesmen stand a chance in the era of Trump.