I was listening on the radio to a talk by Professor Stephen Hawking, or rather to the machine that enables him to speak, and I marvelled at the contrast between the even, flat robotic voice and the liveliness and subtle humour of the thoughts it uttered. And, not for the first time, I felt that the much-quoted adage beloved by English public schools and muscular Christians, namely “Mens sana in corpore sano”, (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was not invariably true. Professor Hawking’s brilliant mind happens to operate within a totally non-functional – never mind healthy – body, while I can recall listening on the radio to famous athletes, footballers and champions of all kinds who by definition were splendid specimens with rippling muscles and superb health – and who could barely utter a sentence without saying “you know” or “I mean” five times . Worse still, no doubt there were some dishy criminals and handsome mafiosi around with admirable physiques but distinctly unhealthy minds. It didn’t add up, somehow.
Where did that quote come from, anyway? (Next question: what is the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for?) Mystery solved: that quote was a misquote, or rather a mangled quote, because in its totality, as written by the poet Juvenal (A.D.60-130), it ran “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano”, i.e. let us pray that there should be a healthy mind in a healthy body. Now that was a completely different proposition; a pious wish, not a statement of fact. And of course it was possible and even laudable to pray for something, without any guarantee of getting it – and I had one puzzle fewer to worry about.
But soon another one came to the fore. “Money is the root of all evil”, claimed a leaflet in my letterbox the other day. It came from some obscure anti-capitalist group, and the mis-spelt and meandering text ended with an appeal – for money, to promote their world-saving campaign. I tore up the leaflet but later remembered having heard that claim before (though not in banking circles); what no-one seemed to suggest was a workable alternative to money. Also, surely there were plenty of evils with non-monetary roots? Once again, it didn’t add up.
Of course not. (Thanks, ODQ.) I’d been bluffed with another mutilated quote, this time from the first Epistle of St Paul to Timothy (who he? never mind). “The love of money is the root of all evil”, wrote St Paul, and he was, and is, spot on: most things that are desperately wrong with the world here and now spring from the obscene greed of profit-centred corporations and a few well-placed individuals. I shan’t say another word about that; certainly not in this blog. My aim from now on is to track down misquotes and their mangled cousins and restore them to their full meaning, so they can’t go on lying in public and puzzling individuals like me.
As for the mysteries, they are modest. I even have tentative solutions to them. The first mystery concerns the ampersand, the symbol for etc. – & . We all know that it stands for et cetera, Latin for and other things. The mystery is why so many people pronounce it as exetera. They do, honest. Just listen to them. Can it be that they are fatally misled by the curly rising bit of the ET crossing its downward bit , which produces a kind of x? At any rate it’s puzzling and if I were braver, one day I would stop an exeterist in mid-flow and request an explanation. (Yes, I do mean eXplanation.)
Then there is the mystery of the label that appears exclusively in pyjamas and dressing- gowns and says KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE AND FLAMES. There are few flames in a modern house: in mine the only (gas) flames appear on the cooker when I put the kettle on. I’ve been pondering this enigma for a while and now wonder whether the warning has survived from the pre-central heating era, when freshly scrubbed children in their nightwear were allowed to stand for a few minutes at the open fire, seen but not heard, before being dispatched to bed. Can’t think of any other scenario; shall have to track down a pyjama manufacturer or a social historian to enlighten me.
The final mystery comes from the noticeboard outside a local church, advertising the times of Sunday services. Not being a churchgoer myself, I only glanced at it in passing, but that was enough to stop me, for I saw the following list: “9.30 Traditional, 10.45 Contemporary, 12.15 Informal, 3.00 p.m. Soaking Prayer”. My mind briefly boggled at the possible difference between the first two – pop songs instead of hymns? – but what on earth, or rather in heaven, could “Informal” mean? Surely, if someone took the time and trouble to go to church, the last thing he/she wanted was to get chummy with the Almighty? There was a telephone number on the board and, as a devoted collector of useless information, I was about to jot it down for future use, but then resisted the urge. There was, I feared, a certain risk of being answered with a Soaking Prayer, and that would have been too much to cope with.
Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.