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Arethusa 38.1 (2005) 89-101

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Words Born and Made:

Horace's Defense of Neologisms and the Cultural Poetics of Latin

The University of Michigan

The defense of neologisms at Horace Ars Poetica 48-69, with its famous simile comparing words to both leaves and feats of engineering (60-69), is among the most memorably poetic passages in Horace's great poem on poetics.1 The question of sources and analogues in the work of earlier poets as well as in poetic, rhetorical, and grammatical theory has consequently attracted much interest, since the passage, as has been shown, provides striking testimony both to Horace's awareness of critical discussions and his originality as a poet (see esp. Brink 1971.132-60). But our emphasis on identifying sources for Horace's concepts and imagery may have prevented us from perceiving all that the comparison with other discourses on language can tell us about the passage as a feature of Roman culture. The prescriptive discourses used to situate word-creation within "correct" Latin employed a distinction between what was "born" or "native" and what was "made" or "new." Some Romans insisted on the avoidance of "new" words, and, although allowances were made for poetry, this nevertheless posed problems for anyone who, like Horace, sought to recommend their use.2 [End Page 89]

Defending neologisms in prescriptive discourses on language often meant taking a stand on the relative merits of Latin and Greek in a manner incompatible with Horace's aims in Ars Poetica and inconsistent with the overall tenor of the poem.3 The distinction between words born and made was regularly conjoined with an argument, carried on over many decades and in diverse venues, between those who saw Latin as "poorer" than Greek in its supply of "native" words and those who objected, explicitly or implicitly, to this claim. Horace's poem is decidedly muted in its nationalism and sharply critical of Roman poets; it praises Greek poets as models while suggesting that emulation of them in Latin is indeed possible. Horace prefers to focus on what is taught and teachable rather than on any intrinsic merits of Greek versus Latin. Thus the question arises as to how Horace avoids the suggestion of this topic while using terms implicated in the debate to argue for word-creation.

In this paper, I argue that Horace approaches these terms so as to diminish the force of the distinction between what is born and what is made. On the one hand, Horace is careful not to assert the poverty of Latin in the manner that usually tied the subject of word-creation to that of cultural prowess. On the other hand, the metaphors through which Horace develops his description of neologisms blur the distinction itself. Allusion to the diachronic concerns of etymology and historiography, as well as reminders of Greek cultural priority and the Romans' historical indebtedness, linguistic and poetic, to the Greeks, also help undermine the idea of Latin itself as a language "born" to original users without disparaging Latin. Horace's defense of neologisms needs to be appreciated not only as poetic theory and a striking poetic image in its own right, but from the perspective of "cultural poetics." It needs to be read for its adaptation of a representational strategy advanced by other means elsewhere in Roman society and deeply implicated [End Page 90] in the dynamics of power within that society—the opposition, that is, between words born and made. Reading the Ars Poetica in this manner is perhaps all the more needful because of the tendency to examine the poem for the ideas and imagery it borrows from its "sources." This tendency works against asking how the form of the Ars as poetry allows a particular kind of participation in the broad social conversation about the Latin language.

When one discussed "new" words in rhetorical and grammatical theory, it was customary to distinguish them from verba propria, the "proper words" that could be imagined to date back virtually to the origins of...


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