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"Illegitimis non carborundum"
-----------------------------

Yes, this means "Don't let the bastards grind you down", but it is not
real Latin; it is a pseudo-Latin joke.

"Carborundum" is a trademark for a very hard substance composed of silicon
carbide, used in grinding. (The name "Carborundum" is a blend of "carbon"
and "corundum". "Corundum" denotes aluminium oxide, and comes to English
from Tamil kuruntam; it is related to Sanskrit kuruvinda = "ruby".) "The
"-ndum" ending suggests the Latin gerundive, which is used to express
desirability of the activity denoted by the verb, as in Nil desperandum =
"nothing to be despaired of"; addendum = "(thing) fit to be added";
corrigendum = "(thing) fit to be corrected"; and the name Amanda, from
amanda = "fit to be loved"). 

Illegitimis is the dative plural of illegitimus = "illegitimate"; the
gerundive in Latin correctly takes the dative to denote the agent.
Illegitimus could conceivably mean "bastard" in Latin, but was not the
usual word for it: Follett World-Wide Latin Dictionary (Follett, 1967)
gives nothus homo for bastard of known father, and spurius for bastard of
unknown father.

The phrase seems to have originated with British army intelligence early
in World War II. It was popularized when U.S. general Joseph W. "Vinegar
Joe" Stilwell (1883-1946) adopted it as his motto. Various variant forms are
in circulation.


Gianfranco Boggio-Togna
  Milano (Italy)
    

AND:

The Rest of the Story... about "Illigitimi Non Carborundum"

Courtesy of Nicholas Humez

It's double-dutch -- or reverse macaronic.

Carborundum was originally a trade name for a kind of grit (silicon carbide crystals, in fact) used as a grinding compound. (SiC is its chemical formula and its hardness is 8 or 9 on the Mohs' scale, right up there with silicon dioxide, SiO2, i.e. common quartz). There may possibly be an association with corundum (aluminum oxide, Al2O3) which is hardness 9 and the technical name for what we call, depending on their trace impurities, rubies when they're red and sapphires when they're blue.

Corundum isn't from Latin at all but from a Tamil word, kuruntam, I presume meaning sapphire or ruby or both.

The popularity of this phrase is undoubtedly due to its continuing a tradition going back at least as far as Shakespeare, in which the vernacular speaker who does not know Latin spoofs the presumed pedantry of those who do (itself a comic tradition going back to Roman comedy and beyond; arguably, Aristophanes' Clouds pokes fun at Socrates under this head -- the man whose show of learning is patent claptrap to the rest of us).

Illegitimate is the fancier/politer/more latinate word for the coarser Anglo-French "bastard," in its legal sense; hence illegitimi a good guess for "What's the Latin word for 'bastards'?" [Here Browning's malicious Spanish-cloister soliloquizer chimes in, "What's the Greek for 'swine's snout'?" -- itself another example of parodying the erudite, though in this case deliberately self-deflating; Brother Lawrence, the object of the speaker's venom, has, after all, merely asked a civil question about parsley, and by no means an off-topic one were he, say, compiling a herbalist's guide.]

While the durability of this phrase is certainly buoyed by a rich tradition of anti-intellectualism peculiar to the United States, it is entirely possible that it may have originated elsewhere (e.g. in England), ironically as someone whose Latin was actually reasonably good playing a joke on someone whose Latin was much shakier or even nonexistent; one can imagine the inventor and his schoolfellows saying, "Let's play a wizard wheeze on old Molesworth, and persuade him that "Illegitimi non carborundum" is the Latin for "don't let..." etc.

Whatever its origin, it has gained a permanent toehold at the oldest college in the USA, where it is sung by the college band at football games to the tune of "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard."

 

"Ten Thousand Men of Harvard"

A. PUTNAM '18

1st Verse
Illegitimum non Carborundum; Domine salvum fac.
Illegitimum non Carborundum; Domine salvum fac.
Gaudeamus igitur!
Veritas non sequitur?
Illegitimum non Carborundum--Ipso facto!

4th Verse
Ten Thousand Men of Harvard want victory today
For they know that o'er old Eli Fair Harvard holds sway.
So then we'll conquer all old Eli's men,
And when the game ends we'll sing again:
Ten thousand men of Harvard gained vict'ry today.

 

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