Rick LaFleur More Content Now
When freezy February comes blasting in, Alice and I always head south to our tiny cottage in Apalachicola, Florida, along with our beach-bunny bulldog Ipsa (Latin for "Herself," which she most certainly is). While I’m at my computer teaching online or writing, and Ipsa stands guard on the porch to protect us from ferocious gulls and other intruders, you’ll find Miss Alice in the yard for hours on end, setting out new plants and trees and lovingly tending the old ones. Apalach native and old-timer Louis Van Vleet, who bikes by daily to feed neighborhood cats, has charmingly dubbed her "our garden’s flower" (from Lat. flora, as in FLORal and LaFLEUR).
We also come in February for the anniversary of our first date back in 2003 and to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. This holiday for lovers was named for two or three different early Christian martyrs all called Saint Valentine, Sanctus (as in SANCTify) Valentinus. Numerous, variously unreliable legends grew up around these figures, one telling of a third-century priest condemned to death for offending the emperor and performing weddings for Roman soldiers, whom the government discouraged from marrying their sweethearts. While imprisoned, the churchman miraculously restored the sight of his jailer’s daughter and later left the girl a farewell note, before his execution, signed "your Valentine."
A host of romantic traditions involving this and the other sainted Valentini had evolved by Chaucer’s time. Feb. 14 was established as Saint Valentine’s Day by the 15th century; and by the 18th century the practice of exchanging sweets, flowers, and "Valentines" had become common in England, migrating thence to America - to the ultimate joy of corporate execs at Russell Stover, the Society of American Florists and Hallmark Cards. And in abbreviating his stage-name to Rudolph Valentino, the famous silent-screen lover likely had this love-fest in mind, though the name he shared with his saintly brethren actually derives from Latin valere, "to be healthy and powerful," as in VALor, VALiant, VALium, inVALid, and preVAIL.
But rites of love date back to pre-Christian Rome. FEBRUary was named for the Februa,ritual purifications performed at mid-month. Those holy cleansings were eventually subsumed into the Lupercalia, a popular festival similarly held each Feb. 13-15 but aimed also at fostering fertility and childbirth (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens during the Lupercalia, with Marc Antony acting as a priest in Caesar’s service).
Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) was goddess of love and procreation (hence VENereal), and her son Cupid (Greek Eros) was god of sexual desire (as in conCUPIscence/lust and CUPIDity, desire for wealth). Both deities were enthusiastically celebrated in cult and ritual. Venus was in myth the mother of Aeneas, the Trojan prince and hero of Vergil’s epic poem the "Aeneid"whose invasion and successful warring in Italy led ultimately to the birth of Rome.
The second-century emperor Hadrian designed and erected a huge temple on the Velian Hill with unique double, mirror-image chambers. One housed a shrine to Rome, the city herself personified, and the other, entered at the structure’s opposite portico, honored Venus, ingeniously playing on the fact that ROMA forms a palindrome with AMOR/love, symbolizing the generative life-force that had created the empire and perpetuated its greatness.
Latin amor has given us lots of English words, like: inAMORata, your lady love; enAMORed, the way you feel about her; and AMORous, how she expects you to behave on Valentine’s Day. There’s AMAtory too, like the verse on your Valentine’s card, and the names AMAnda, literally "worthy of love," AMy, = loving, and even MABLe, from aMABILis/loveable! You may also know the adage, omnia vincit amor, "love conquers all!"
AMATEUR is another lovely derivative, one of my favorites. Often used to disparage a person whose efforts seem unprofessional, in origin the word was highly positive. It comes to us via French from Latin amator, which meant lover, admirer, or someone passionately enthusiastic about any endeavor. I’m an amateur when I sit down at my computer to write these columns, since I do so, not to be paid, but for the sheer love of it.
All this typing is hard work, however, and inevitably builds up an appetite. I’m thinking right now, in fact, of heading out for a pizza - which reminds me of the late, great Italian-American crooner Dean Martin. Dino’s cover of Frank Sinatra’s "Everybody Loves Somebody (Sometime)" soared to no. 1 on the pop charts in 1964. But the lyric I’m thinking of here, likewise appropriate to Valentine’s Day, came from an earlier, 1953 hit (which made it all the way to no. 2): "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore!"
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.