Papam? Papem? Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

TV and popular culture.
April 19 2005 5:36 PM

Papam? Papem? Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

The Latin grammar wars on Fox News.

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At around 12:20 ET this afternoon, shortly after white smoke began issuing from the sacramental chimney of the papal conclave, the legend on the lower third of Fox News' screen shifted from the English exclamation "We Have a Pope!" to its equivalent in Latin: "Habemus Papam!" A few moments later, when Jorge Cardinal Medina Estevez took to the papal balcony to announce, in several different modern languages, the news that the new pope had been chosen, the words below him shifted without warning to "Habemus Papem!" But then, like a stern Latin teacher correcting his wayward flock, Estevez pronounced the offending words clearly: "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papam." As if the Fox programmers had been awaiting Estevez's speech to settle the matter, the correct declension, papam, was quickly restored, this time in a kind of quasi-medieval golden typeface with drop caps, like an illuminated manuscript. Yet moments later, as Estevez exited the balcony after announcing that the new pope's chosen name would be Benedict XVI (I, for one, was still holding out hope for "George Ringo"), the original, no-nonsense capital lettering returned, along with the original misspelling: "Habemus Papem!"

Papam? Papem? Should we call the whole thing off? I'll turn over the final verdict to you classicists out there, but according to my college Latin textbook (to this day, one of the most useful language references on my shelf), papa (pope) should be a regular first-declension noun, like porta (door); its singular accusative form, as a direct object of the verb habere, should be papam with an "A." Of course, papa isn't a classical Latin word at all but a later derivative of an affectionate Greek term for "father"; it wasn't used exclusively for the Bishop of Rome until the 11th century A.D. (Thanks to Slate copy editor and resident word nerd Amanda Watson-Boles for the etymological research.)

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I love imagining the harried Fox intern charged with solving this ancient grammar snafu, madly logging on to classical-language Web sites while his or her superiors slapped up first one version, then the other. The two spellings alternated randomly on-screen until, at around 12:36 ET, the legend shifted definitively back to papam, where it remained for the rest of the afternoon. (CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, stuck to more prosaic English-language headlines: "Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger named Head of Church," or simply "New Pope Announced.")

There's something endearing about Fox's choice to go all pre-Vatican II by choosing to announce the papal election in a dead language in the first place, given the generally xenophobic tone of the network's coverage of foreign events. Anytime things slowed down this afternoon, a Fox reporter could be heard roving through the crowd in St. Peter's Square hollering, "Any English speakers here? English? English?"

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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