By Judy Woodward
Editor’s note: This month, the Bugle introduces a new column “Ask the librarian.”
Every week, the reference librarians at the Roseville Library answer hundreds of questions from the public. Here are a couple of the most interesting they have received lately:
Q. Which Ramsey County branch libraries have fireplaces, and how big are they?
A. Now that the cold weather is here, come enjoy reading our books and magazines by the fireside. The Ramsey County Library has fireplaces in six of our seven libraries. The Roseville Library has two! You can enjoy a fire in both the Children’s Room and the Adult Reading Area on the second floor. Only Mounds View is without the comforting presence of a fire. With a couple of exceptions, our fireplaces are typically 3-feet wide by 2 ½-feet high. In other words, plenty big enough to warm your day.
Q. The phrase “quid pro quo” has been in the news a lot lately. What are the origins of the expression? Why can’t they come up with a normal English way to say the same thing?
A. The Latin phrase “quid pro quo” means “one thing in exchange for another,” and it’s been used in English with that meaning at least since the time of Shakespeare. A less refined way of saying the same thing might be “tit for tat.” Of course, the action that the phrase describes is often anything but refined. Perhaps that explains why we express the idea in Latin. Legal language is peppered with Latin phrases from “amicus curiae” (friend of the court) to “non compos mentis” (not of sound mind) to “caveat emptor” (buyer beware). This is mostly because Latin was the official language of all British court records until the 18th century. Law is a profession built on precedent and, even today, attorneys are expected to know more than a few Latin words and phrases.
And here’s another possibility to consider: For centuries lawyers knew Latin, but most ordinary people didn’t. Lawyers also knew that if there was an unpleasant concept to be expressed, it was probably much easier to say it in a way that nobody else understood. Think, for example, of “corpus delicti” (body of the crime) or “in flagrante” (caught in the—usually illicit and sexual—act). Latin seems to provide a softening shield between our ears and the awful truth of the a situation. (Oxford English Dictionary and Internet resources.)
Judy Woodward, who lives in St. Anthony Park, is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library, 2180 N. Hamline Ave.