April 29, 2007

Via ovicipitum dura est

In English: The way of the eggheads is hard.

After the sayings about eggs I've posted in the past few days, I had to include this delightful saying, which is most famously associated with the American politician, Adlai Stevenson.

The word ovicipitum is a genitive plural form of oviceps, "egg-head." This is a Latin word found in scientific literature, as in the Scarus oviceps, commonly called the "egghead parrotfish." What Stevenson has done, however, is to appropriate the Latin word for a peculiarly American idiom: the "egghead" intellectual.

Stevenson himself was notoriously an intellectual, and he was also balding - the quintessential egghead. Richard Nixon actually called Stevenson an "egghead" during Stevenson's run for the presidency in 1952. You can read more about this in the wikipedia article, which is illustrated with a very egghead-y photo of Stevenson.

The earliest citation for "egghead" in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1907, yet there is a flurry of citations from the 1950s when the word became a key term in American political discourse. There are even two citations about Adlai Stevenson in the Oxford English dictionary, both from 1952. The first citation: "A good many intelligent people..obviously admired Stevenson. ‘Sure,’ was the reply, ‘all the egg heads love Stevenson.’" The second citation: "Writers of letters to editors tend to be in the intellectual or ‘egg~head’ category where Stevenson sentiment is strong."

Stevenson, however, did not disavow the label. Instead, he embraced it. So, in a lecture he gave at Harvard on March 17 in 1954, Stevenson remarked, “Via ovicipitum dura est, or, for the benefit of the engineers among you: The way of the egghead is hard.” I guess in the 1950s Stevenson could assume that all the literature and history majors would understand the Latin without a translation, so he offers the English for the benefit of the engineering students in the audience.

About a week later, he is reported to have made another egghead joke, in English this time, as cited in the Oxford English Dictionary and dated March 23, 1954: "Eggheads of the world, unite," Stevenson said; "you have nothing to lose but your yolks." Ha! I love it: Stevenson gets my vote!

So here is today's proverb read out loud:

280. Via ovicipitum dura est.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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