Learned Volume 5, Issue 15
This week: Sui generis means unique but it is far from the only Latin phrase we use in English. Let’s talk about it.
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Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is, by all accounts, the feel good hit movie of the summer. In fact, during the most recent episode of the Slate Culturefest, co-host Dana Stevens went so far as to choose the character in general, and the movie in specific for her weekly recommendation, saying, "But [Marcel] is now the subject of a full length feature film that is so sui generis and just the sweetest, loveliest thing." Sounds great, can't wait to see it.
But, let’s talk about that little Latin phrase there in the middle: sui generis.
Generally speaking, sui generis means "unique" or "individual". Wikipedia provides the full definition as:
[sui generis] is a Latin phrase that means "of its/his/her/their own kind", "in a class by itself", therefore "unique".
Moreover, sui generis is what we might refer to as a “term of art”, a word or phrase commonly used inside a given industry to refer to something specific and specialized to that industry. In film criticism, sui generis is used to refer to movies that seem to exist in a genre of one; in other words a film is sui generis when movie critics can't figure out what genre it fits into12.
Outside the movie industry, sui generis continues to work as a term of art with disparate, distinct meanings in areas of legal, philosophical, and biological research. In each case, the broad "unclassifiable" meaning is applied to the specific unique structure in those fields like statutes, concepts, and animals.
Of course, sui generis is far from the only Latin term of art in use in English today. Do a quick google for "latin words used in English" and prepare to spend the rest of the day reading list after list of words you didn't know were actually Latin, like etcetera and vice versa, and words you kind of know from watching L.A. Law, like pro bono and de facto. Not to mention all those great phrases that we know are Latin but only use when we're rallying the troops after one margarita too many: carpe diem, ad astra, and, most importantly, alibi.
But why? Why so much Latin? Isn't a dead language?
Yes, Latin is dead. Has been for centuries. But, there's a thing in sociolinguistics we call prestige language. And it's just what it sounds like - words or phrases that are given a higher status for whatever reason. Here's a good summary from Wikipedia:
In sociolinguistics, prestige is the level of regard normally accorded a specific language or dialect within a speech community, relative to other languages or dialects. Prestige varieties are language or dialect families which are generally considered by a society to be the most "correct" or otherwise superior.
In practical terms, what that means is...well, it's like this:
Back when I arrived in Japan, I spoke almost no Japanese. Let me rephrase that. I spoke zero Japanese. I spent my first few months desperately trying to cram as much Japanese as possible into my skull so I would have at least some vague idea of what was happening around me. Part of my "learning" process was to shovel late night t.v. shows into my eyes and ears on a regular basis.
These t.v. shows would debut pop acts or rock bands as part of their schedule and each song would have its requisite English phrase. Usually something about pain (Blue Hearts, looking at you) or love. You know, the universal truths inherent in all pop music. But why did they pepper these songs, otherwise completely in Japanese, with English phrases?
English was (and to some extent still is) viewed as a prestige language. Song writers could pepper in suitable words and phrases and class up their songs. Sometimes it worked, often it just sounded...odd. But these simple additions made the performers seem more worldly and their songs more international, both key aspirational attributes for young Japanese at the time.
We've been doing the same thing with Latin for centuries. As linguist Laurie Bauer3 puts it:
The prestige accorded to the churchmen, lawyers and scholars who used Latin was transferred to the language itself. Latin was held to be noble and beautiful, not just the thoughts expressed in it or the people who used it. What is called 'beauty' in a language is more accurately seen as a reflection of the prestige of its speakers.
The funny part, for me, is that this phenomenon, like advertising and placebos seems to be no less effective for understanding just how it works on the brain. What I mean is, I know that this linguistic prestige is a made up thing, something that only holds meaning because we feel it to be true, not because of any inherent value in one language over another and yet, I'm still guilty of doing it. Just a few weeks ago, in writing about Türkiye and Kyiv I replaced that little conjunction with et. Why? Dunno. Just sounded better.
But, uniquely in this case, I think I can trace my individual association of Latin with prestige to a specific source.
Back in my radio days, the chief engineer at the station was this crusty old guy in his 60s named John. He had been there, done that, and had the scars and souvenirs to prove it. Hanging out with him every afternoon remains one of the great privileges of my life. He taught me about music, about people, about electrical engineering4, just...everything.
He dispensed wisdom and bad jokes from his perch on the balcony outside the AM studio; he lorded over the daily bullshit sessions with the grace and charm of a drunken Santa. No matter how dire the news of the day or how weird the world seemed, he had a snarky Latin phrase to help knock things back into perspective. "Cum granis salis." and "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" are the ones I remember best, but there were so many more.
And of course, there was absolutely no reason for him to spout these phrases off in Latin. After all, for every new phrase, we'd have to run off to the library and look things up, often finding the original context...I think I just figured out why he did it.
Well. Cogito, ergo sum indeed.
The 91 Days project is off and running. You can read up on the project, see how it’s going, or join in by following the links below. It’s a lot of fun so far and I’d love to see how other people do with the challenge.
Down the Rabbit Hole:
One of my favorite sources of rabbit holes is the blog “Flashbak.” The name is slightly misleading as the blog gathers ephemera from back in the day and adds a bit of context and a bit of nostalgia to the collection. And recently, they got me headed off down a rabbit hole of classic and rare movie posters.
I started with Flashbak’s Gorgeous and Exquisite Movie Posters from the Silent Era.
Which sent me looking for posters of my favorite silent era star: 532 unique movie posters for 83 movies featuring Buster Keaton
But, of course, you can’t have Buster Keaton without his best frenemy: Charlie Chaplin Posters
And man, some of those minimal Chaplin posters are really cool. Wonder what else is out there… Minimal Movie Posters
Finally, to bring it back to today, what cool posters are out there for this year’s movies? The Best Movie Posters of 2022
From the Archives:
Let’s head back just two years to 2020 (how was 2020 only two years ago?) to Learned Volume 3, Issue 15: Donut React, in which I, being stuck at home along with everyone else, discovered the joy of YouTube reaction videos. It’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise. Enjoy!
The great irony of sui generis works of art is that, if they're successful enough, they are imitated and iterated to the point that they become the foundation of a new genre. Arguably, a film like Edgar Wright's Sean of the Dead was a sui generis movie when it first debuted. A zombie movie, sure, but one that played with the tropes of the genre in a way that made it both a parody and a sincere homage simultaneously. In the years since, both Wright's style and the specificity he brought to Sean have both been copied to the point that there is an entire sub-genre that plays on the name, Juan of the Dead being the only watchable one.
The counter to this is that genre has become so fractured and the number of works created so great that there really isn't any such thing as a sui generis movie. Instead, every work created bears some resemblance, in some way, to some other work and thus, a sub-genre of a sub-genre is created.
Well. He tried to. Can't blame the teacher for the student's failures now, can we?