Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lectio difficilior

Lectio difficilior potior is fancy way of saying “let's make things as complicated as possible”.

It's a principle used by people who spend their lives trying to patch up and decipher manuscripts, and it basically means that, when there are several versions of the same text, the version that's more complicated and unusual is the right one.

It makes sense, when you think about it. When information gets transmitted from one to another (in this case, copied by people from different generations, with various degrees of knowledge and understanding of the language), somebody on the line may over-simplify because he doesn't understand any better.

Here's how in works in practice. In Tacitus, there's a passage saying “this is the best of luck's gifts, when the Empire is pressed by its destiny”. Some of the scribes who copied the manuscript later couldn't figure out whose destiny it was and why it was pressuring the empire, so they changed it into “when the Empire is about to be doomed”. This makes sense looking at the issue retrospectively, when they already knew the empire was doomed; from Tacitus' point of view, it surely wasn't the case, but it helped cement his reputation of being a pessimist (which he was anyway). Most scholars now agree that the initial reading is the correct one, and the “Empire pressed by its destiny” was a common expression (it can be found in other authors as well) that we just don't know how to interpret today.

Now, do you google words and names sometimes, when in doubt, to find out which is the correct spelling? I know I do. Well, guess what. The spelling with the highest number of occurrences is not necessarily the correct one. It might just be that the one that got simplified and spread as such.

(Yes, I know, I was supposed to do the continuation of Rome vs. USA today. Sorry, I've been awfully busy, I'm trying to watch all classic Betty Boop cartoons in one day, so tomorrow. If I finish with Betty Boop today, that is.)