“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches”
— Margaret Atwood; The Haidmaid’s Tale.
(broken Latin, meaning ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’)
Many will recognise this quote from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (and the subsequent – and epic – Hulu adaptation for the small screen). But where does this ‘fake’ Latin phrase originate? Michael Fontaine, a classics professor from Cornell University; and this blog’s author, Ryan Vandeput, an English Literature Masters Graduate from the University of Leicester, took their best guesses.
“It was likely an old school joke, for those who took Latin class. It’s not really ‘true’ Latin; rather, it sounds like something a school pupil made up for fun. It might even be something Margaret Atwood remembers from her schooling & childhood” surmised Vandeput. Another similar Latin joke phrase with the same supposed translation is “illegitimi non carborundorum,” which Fontaine noted was equally fake—though it’s perhaps a little more legit as Latin, since it at least doesn’t use the made-up “bastardes.”
“Illegitimi is a real Latin word,” Fontaine continues. “It could indeed mean ‘bastards’ (though it’s not the usual word, which is spurius or nothos).”
“My guess is that c. 1890-1900, some American people thought it would be funny to pretend like ‘carborundum’ was actually a Latin word meaning ‘needing to be worn down’ or (making allowances for ignorance, which is surely part of it) ‘to wear down.’ If the phrase was originally illegitimis non carborundum, then the original idea was that ‘there must not be a wearing down (of you) by the bastards,’ or in plain English, ‘don’t let the bastards get you down.’ Either then or soon after, illegitimis would have become illegitimi, which changes the grammar, but most English speakers can’t tell because our grammar doesn’t work that way. That would pretty quickly give you illegitimi non carborundum”
“The key to the mystery is knowing that carborundum was a trade name (for an abrasive scrubbing powder used for cleaning),” he continued. “Whatever it was, it’s not in use any more, so we’ve lost all memory of it. Nowadays it just looks like a strange, broken Latin word to us,” Fontaine concluded.
— Ryan Vandeput, 2018