Greek and Latin
permit some rather interesting word play. Here are two examples I like.
Greek epigram (A.P. 10.43).
The first is a Greek inscription
found on a sundial in the city of Herculaneum, which, like Pompeii, was
buried by Vesuvius in AD 79. (It is much older than that, however, and was
widely enough known and well enough respected to have found its way into the
so-called Palatine Anthology.) I haven't tried to gimmick the accents,
but I've manually written in 'h' for rough breathings.
hεξ hωραι μοχθοις hικανωταται⋅ hαι δε μετ' αυτας
γραμμασι δεικνυμεναι ΖΗΘΙ λεγουσι βροτοις.
Six hours are quite sufficient
for work. But the ones after those,
reading ΖΗΘΙ with their letters say "enjoy
life" to mankind.
To get the joke, you need to know
(1) that Greek
letters double as numbers:
α = 1
β = 2
γ = 3
δ = 4
ε = 5
(digamma, no symbol available) = 6
ζ = Ζ = 7
η = Η = 8
θ = Θ = 9
ι = Ι = 10
(2) that there were 12 hours in the
daytime, numbered 1-12, spanning dawn to dusk.
(3) that Ζ, Η, Θ, and Ι are the afternoon siesta hours 7-10 (i.e., 1:00-4:00, approximately).
(4) that ΖΗΘΙ
is the Greek imperative meaning "live!," with a
sense of "live well!"
So this poem engineers a neat little
perceptual shift. It begins with the assertion that 6 hours are enough for work,
and looks at first as though it merely goes on to designate the hours that follow
by the letter equivalents of their numerical values. The words γραμμασι
"designated by their letters" prompt us to look at them just in that humdrum
way. But once you get past the numbers, the word λεγουσι
("they speak/say") does all the work by making you now see that the numbers are "speaking" a word:
the numbers not only designate the hours for enjoying life, they order you to!
Modern printing conventions (even
the conventions that govern ancient Greek) give the game away pretty quickly
thanks to formatting meant to facilitate the rapid and easy parsing of text.
If you remember that all of these letters would have been in capitals and bereft
of word spacing and punctuation in the original, you can see how the joke might
sneak up on you and surprise you thoroughly.
On the Roman side.
This doggerel graffito
is funny because it can be read two ways. Decoded this way:
Men tu lacessas? Ver palumbos abstulit.
it pointlessly says, "Are you
harassing me? Spring has taken away the doves." The only redeeming feature
of this is that it is functional Latin. It even reproduces a fairly
common poetic meter.
But parsed this way:
Mentula cessas? Verpa lumbos abstulit.
Dick, are you giving up? Cock has stolen buttocks!
it naughtily partakes in the Greco-Roman
tradition of imagining a contest for the affections of a penis: shall it be
loyal to its female counterpart, or to the attractions
of the buttocks? Abstulit may mean "steal" or "take away,"
but it can as well mean "win (as a prize)," which probably works better.
Page, D.L. 1981. Further Greek
Epigrams. (Page's poem 91 = A.P. 10.43.)
Courtney, E. 1995. Musa Lapidaria. A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions. (The Latin doggerel is Courtney's poem 98.)