‘Terrible’ Places


Latin translation presents us with tempting cognates, but often enough these have changed so much in their transition into modern English that it would be unreasonable to employ them in a straightforward way.  Terribilis is just such a false friend.  We now most often use the term Terrible to mean Very bad or repulsive (“What a terrible thing to say!”), or even just Very (“I’m terribly sorry”).  This is a far-cry from its meaning in Latin, is clear from a glance at the translation in the image above.

Quam terribilis est locus iste”

It’s hard to suppress a smile at the thought of translating this transcription (plucked from the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles Borromeo, Rome) as “What a terrible place this is”(!)  Of course that would be completely wrong. The Latin here retains the earlier meaning of “Inspiring fear (terror) or awe”.  So it would be best to translate this as “What an awe-inspiring place this is!”

A brief digression: this inscription is in fact a reference to Jacob’s exclamation after his famous dream of the ladder (Genesis 28.11-17), which the Vulgate renders as follows:

Quam terribilis, inquit, est locus iste!  Non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli.”

(How awe-inspiring this place is!  This is none other than the house of God and the doors of Heaven.)

Readers more accustomed to the pitfalls of Latin translation will perhaps think this post is a bit of a tempest in a teapot.  But if the present case is illustrative, it’s only because it is so obviously wrong to translate Terribilis as “Terrible”.  Frequently, false friends don’t bare their falsity on their sleeves.  Take the following line from Livy (9.23.10):

Stativa nostra munimento satis tuta sunt sed inopia eadem infesta.”

We might be tempted to translate this as follows: “Our camps are safe enough when it comes to walls, but they are infested with poverty.”  But Infestus here (and very often) means not “Infested” but “Exposed to, at risk of” (or, in some other cases, “Hostile”).  The camps are not overwhelmed (‘infested’) with poverty, but merely at exposed to scarcity or want.

Let this be a cautionary tale.


A colleague of mine points out that Terrible still occasionally means “Frightful” or “Awe-inspiring”.  And this is sometimes true.  Just look at how A.T. Murray translates Iliad III.336-7:

κρατι δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἰφθίμῳ κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν

ἵππουριν: δεινον δε λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν”

(And on his mighty head he set a well-made helmet with a horse-hair crest; and terribly did the plume nod from above.) 

Very well.  But Murray’s translation dates back to 1924; and I would be surprised if Murray didn’t have the Latin in mind when he wrote this. Still, if I tell you my helmet is terrible, will you expect me to get a new one, or will you expect drivers to cower as I merge?


St Mary’s (Scarborough, UK)



A church of the Blessed Mary, which long before belonged to the Cistercians, and had deteriorated with age; and which many people, both citizens and foreigners ―having gathered together money for the task― restored with notable handiwork and adornment, in the year 1850.

One of the words here with a long and interesting history is Aedes.  The word has a variety of meanings: it can mean House or Dwelling-place, and also (esp. in a pagan context) Temple.  Hence Virgil speaks poetically of the “[apes] clausis cunctatur in aedibus” (“[bees] lingering in closed-up dwelling-places [i.e. hives]”); and Varro describes the Aedilis (Aedile) as “qui aedis sacras et privatas procuraret” (“the one who looked after Aedes, both sacred and private”; De Lingua Latina V.81).

More specifically, it can refer to the shrine as an inner part of a temple; Pliny the Elder, for instance, makes mention of a much-admired sculpture of Hecate “in templo Dianae post aedem” (“in the temple of Diana, behind the shrine”; Naturalis Historia XXXVI.32).

Later on, however, the term came to mean Church, as it does in the inscription above.  I am still looking for evidence of its use in this way among early Christian writers.  Leonard Palmer (pp.186ff) remarks that early Christians preferred to borrow Greek terms such as Ecclesia (Eκκλησία) to describe churches, rather than to use terms like Templum and Fanum, which were laden with pagan connotations.  Perhaps later on, when paganism was not such a going concern, use of Aedes was revived.  I tentatively submit that this might have been due, as often seems to be the case, to the poets: even Avitus of Vienne (ca. A.D. 470-519) uses Vates (SeerSoothsayer) to mean Prophet, where earlier Christian writers (especially prose writers) would have opted for Propheta.  But I should emphasise that this is merely a guess.

Further Reading/Sources
Avitus’ The Fall of Man (De Spiritalis historiae gestis; note that this work had a significant influence on John Milton).
Palmer, Leonard. The Latin Language. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.
Pliny’s (mammoth!) Naturalis Historia.
Varro’s De Lingua Latina.
Virgil’s Georgics.