Latin tattoo – caveat emptor


The Tattoos section on social bookmarking site Reddit is a great place to ask for advice on body ink, and for showing off your new tattoos to the world. Unfortunately, user “MikeTheDudeHenry” got a little more than he bargained for when he revealed his new “Latin” tatto emblazoned across his shoulder blades. Clearly following the adage of quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur (“anything said in Latin seems profound”), he hoped for a wholly positive reaction to his cemel dosce tattoo, which he claimed was Latin for “know thyself“.

It soon became apparent that he had picked up the phrase from the hit movie “The Matrix”, from the scene in which the Oracle points out to Neo the sign hanging above her kitchen door.

The sign, which reads temet nosce, is not actually the most accurate translation of “know thyself” – the phrase would usually be rendered nosce te ipsum. However, MikeTheDudeHenry must have misread the sign’s curvy Blackletter font, confusing the capital “T” for a “C”, the lowercase “t” for an “l”, and the lowercase “n” for a capital “D”. Thus, temet nosce became cemel dosce.

The unfortunate recipient of this wholly innaccurate body ink – even after having been told that neither is a legitimate Latin word – is sadly still claiming that it must be correct, because “cemel nosce” has over 3,400 results on Google. Sadly, however, Google is not the best way to proof-read a 2,000 year old language.

Reddit user “thenatman” sums up the lessons we should all learn from this folly:

Moral of the story: before you get a tattoo:

  • Ensure that you have reliable sources
  • Ensure that these sources are able to read very simple-to-decipher Blackletter font
  • Ensure that these sources are not relying on a movie for the origin of this phrase
  • Ensure that the writers of the movie itself are actually proficient in the language they claim to be proficient in
  • For everyone involved, ensure that the phrase in fact originates from the language you believe it originates from. Sure, there have been multiple famous uses of the Latin “nosce te ipsum” (Hobbes, for instance), but the original is the Greek, found at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

More generally, don’t take the idea for your permanent tattoo from a font-related misreading of a non-standard translation of a phrase originally in an entirely different language, neither of which you speak or understand.

As somebody also quipped in the comments section, the more apt Latin phrase here would be caveat emptor – “buyer beware”.

Folks, always remember to run your foreign language tattoos by somebody who speaks or at least has studied the language in question!

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