October 26, 2003
Contemporary Uses Of Latin

Volokh Major mentions the judicially-approved 'Shit Happens' bumper sticker (10/24, 3:39 PM if the link doesn't work). A few years ago, I was asked to translate this message into Latin for a summer student I was tutoring to brush up his Latin before he went back to Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Dartmouth -- one of those places. He wanted to make a bumper sticker for his favorite professor's pickup truck.

Latin doesn't seem to have a noun exactly corresponding to 'shit'. The verb is easy enough: caco, cacare, cacavi, cacatus is the standard obscene word for intestinal excretion -- and it even sounds like 'caca'. Merda (plural merdae) is close to the right meaning, but it usually means a piece of shit and is therefore more like 'turd'. I went with stercus, which is barnyard language but not obscene: 'dung' or 'manure'. For the verb, I gave him a choice of fit or accidit, leaning towards the latter. Although the meanings overlap, Stercus fit would mean something more like "Shit exists, there is shit in the world", while Stercus accidit could be loosely paraphrased "Into every life some shit must fall". (The basic meaning of accidit is "fall on" and therefore "befall, happen to" or just "occur".) The original English saying is not entirely perspicuous, so a case could be made for either fit or accidit. I don't know which the student chose, or how his professor responded.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at October 26, 2003 11:12 PM

This sounds like the kind of thing that might have been found as graffiti in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Posted by: J Bowen on October 28, 2003 12:47 PM

I like Stercus accidit; "fit" just doesn't work here for me. But what's wrong with merda in the plural - ie merdae accidunt (forgive conjugation errors)? And, if it's not too much, how about merda cacat - shit shits - which gives you the true sense of what "shit happens" is all about, a mysterious process of self-generation of shit deep within the bowels of the universe, so to speak, along with two vulgarities instead of one?

Posted by: Geoffrey Barto on October 28, 2003 01:15 PM

Stercus sanctus!

Posted by: Frank DiSalle on October 28, 2003 11:45 PM

Just a question from a complete Latin illiterate: How would these different phrases be pronounced? The ambiguious 'c' confounds me, and I have no idea how the vowels should sound.

Posted by: Rob Ritchie on October 29, 2003 09:10 AM

Caput sterci was something uttered more than once by one of my Latin teachers. Not directed at me, though perhaps it should have been.

Rob: Here's a guide.

Posted by: Patrick on October 30, 2003 10:37 AM

How about stercus tauri?

Posted by: Michael Lonie on November 1, 2003 08:28 PM

Frank DiSalle:

Stercus is neuter, so that would be stercus sanctum.


Stercus is third declension, so that would be caput stercoris.

Michael Lonie:

Romans tended to use adjectives rather than genitives with stercus, so B.S. would be stercus taurinum.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on November 3, 2003 07:04 AM

Hmm. Never have I seen the different words for dung in Latin described so well. Gratias tibi ago!

Posted by: Jon on November 3, 2003 11:23 AM

Was there a Roman God named Stercus? How did he look and how was he worshipped?

Posted by: Lilly Charlotte Lutzenberger on August 27, 2004 05:12 PM