I caught an interview on the BBC’s The World this week with Trevor Paglin, author of the book I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me.
US Military operations have a long history of designing patches for the men and women who serve in specific missions. Although it seems counter-intuitive, even covert operations design patches to commemorate secret missions/projects. The patches are “public"–in the sense that the patch itself isn’t classified–but the nature of the work means the symbology has to be fairly cryptic. Paglin’s book includes photos of these “black ops” patches, along with research he did to uncover their meaning.
Nothing says “cryptic” like a dash of Latin, so naturally many of these patches include a few words of the ancient language. The book’s title, in fact, is a translation of a Latin phrase from one of these patches. Sadly, I’m unable to find that one, but check out a few others I’ve seen on-line (found them at Wired and at Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, if you care to look at others):
Gustavus Similis Pullus - “taste like chicken” is dog-Latin (i.e. look up three words in a dictionary and write them down, much like what on-line translators do). Would it have been that tough to use the correct pullo? Testum Pontus Veratis is hardly Latin at all. Knowing the tendency of these patches, testum may refer to the male testes. Pontus is obviously “sea", but veratis is not a Latin word; the benefit of the doubt says this could be V/F substitution (something seen in ancient inscriptions), and so the word is Feratis - “May you carry off". Very loosely then, the phrase means “May you carry off a sea of balls". Of course, I don’t believe this is the real translation; I rather suspect the phrase is a fake anagram of some kind.
With Furtim vigilans we finally come across real Latin: “Steathily vigilant", a good choice for a covert group. Oderint dum Metuant - “Let them hate so long as they fear” is a classical refernce; Suetonius says it was a favorite phrase of the emperor Caligula. Finally Ex meis frigidis et mortuis manibus - “From my cold and dead hands", a phrase normally used by soldiers (and American gun owners) to descibe the circumstances under which they would give up their rifles.
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