Thursday, May 13, 2010

First it killed the Romans ...

I have a confession to make. I have a nasty case of Latin punning.

I first learned the horrid Latin pun “semper ubi sub ubi” from my older brothers, who took Latin in college. (Note: my eldest brother is seven years older than I am and was eight years ahead in school, so he started college the year I started fifth grade. You can imagine how his sense of humor interacted with mine.)

The pun works like this. Semper is the Latin word for “always,” as in “Semper Fi,” the Marine Corps motto that’s short for “semper fidelis,” “always faithful.” Ubi is the Latin word for “where,” as in, “Where is it?” It’s the root of the English word “ubiquitous.” Sub means the same thing in Latin that it does in English—“under,” as in submarine, subterranean, etc. Semper ubi sub ubi. Replace each Latin word with its English equivalent and sound it out. I’ll wait.

Yeah. It’s that bad. In my defense, I was eleven at the time. And for the record, it makes no sense whatsoever in Latin—it’s funny only to those who speak English too.

A few years later, when I was writing Masks as a serial, I kept in touch with my fans via an ancient device known as a letter column, or lettercol if you’re really into fandom. My readers would write me letters (primitive communications consisting of ink stains on paper, delivered by uniformed couriers), and I would reprint their contents on a designated page of each issue, including my response to each. This required me to step outside my normal authorial voice and speak more or less as myself. I have always been a little uncomfortable with this practice, as I started writing stories in part because I really didn’t have much to say to people otherwise, but it seemed to make the fans happy, and I am all about making fans happy. So I experimented with different writing styles in my lettercol responses.

And then one day I discovered Stan Lee.

You might remember him. He invented about half of the comic-book characters you like. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, my own beloved Daredevil … if Marvel Comics publishes it and you like it, chances are Stan Lee tinkered with it at some point. Now, Stan’s personality could fairly be compared to an exploding cigar. He never met an exclamation point he didn’t like, and his alliterative headlines still give me nightmares. (For my money, the most daunting was, “A Quaff of Quixotic Quips and Quotes to Quench Your Quakes and Quandaries!”) But his style in interacting with fans was very personable and folksy, if hyperbolic, and it did manage to be amusing.

So one day, when I’d run out of other ideas, I did the lettercol in Stan-Lee-esque terms. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, I alliterated wherever I could, and all my responses sounded like they should be read by one of those shouting announcers in car-lot commercials. It was fun.

And then, at the end, I had to come up with some kind of take on Stan’s trademark signoff, “Excelsior!” Well, I didn’t have a whole lot of Latin at my disposal, so I went with my trusty standby, “Semper ubi sub ubi!” It seemed to work, and I included a little note about its translation. It seemed particularly appropriate for a serial about people who sometimes wore their underwear on the outside. And I used it for a few months, then dropped it.

At which point I began getting letters about it.

“Where’s my semper ubi sub ubi?” “I need my semper ubi sub ubi!” “I haven’t gotten my money’s worth if I haven’t seen my bad Latin for the month!” (Money’s worth? The serial was free!) So I brought it back as the signoff. Soon the fan letters were including it. When Masks got a web archive, the domain name included the phrase. Sometimes it was shortened to its initials—SUSU. I appliquéd it on my laptop bag because, well, nobody else was going to have a bag like that, so I’d always know which one was mine.

And last month when Derrick texted me to ask what slogan Rae would have on her T-shirt, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So there it is, rearing its punnish head once more. I don’t think it can be killed now. But at least it’s back to being an in-joke for everyone.

Oh, right, I should explain the blog title. It’s taken from a bit of doggerel almost every Latin student learns (and is, in fact, the title of a chapter in Masks where Trevor unexpectedly finds his life depends on his Latin skills):

Latin is a dead language,
Dead as it can be;
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me.

And so I now remind you, always … well, you know the rest.


  1. I was watching Kevin Smith's interview with Stan Lee. (It was on a bonus DVD that came with Spider-Man.) When Smith asked the immortal Lee why his character's names were alliterative (e.g. Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Sue Storm), Stan Lee said that he was pretty sure he did it because they were easier to remember. Not for the readers, necessarily, but for HIM! He creates and writes some of the most famous comics of all time, and he needs mnemonic helps to remember his own characters. DAMN, but I love Stan Lee! hehehe

    and, again, as for semper ubi sub ubi, let me reiterate, not with a kilt -- wearing anything underneath makes it a skirt.

  2. I haven't run into that problem yet with my main characters, but I've definitely run into it with my supporting characters. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at my notes and asked, "Is this Anna I'm writing about, or Lupe? Or did I change Anna's name to Lupe? Which manuscript am I reading???!!"