O rare Ben Johnson (sic) [= orare Ben Johnson? ]

lentulax

Senior Member
UK English
(The epitaph on Ben Jonson's tombstone) a topic raised on the English Only forum, whose discussion partly goes beyond the scope of that forum. It has often been claimed (though I don't know who first did so, or when) that this is a pun : o rare = orare in latin - so the inscription also means 'Pray for Ben Jonson' (an invitation with a distinctly Catholic implication which would not have been permitted by the Protestant orthodoxy). For many reasons, I am not in the least convinced by this claim, despite the frequency with which it ihas been repeated; I raise it here because my first reason is that, though 'orare' means pray, 'Orare Ben Jonson' does not , and cannot, mean 'Pray for Ben Jonson.' 'Pray for', in this sense, is normally 'Ora/orate pro' , isn't it? (I think of the Litany of Saints, etc.etc.). And 'orare' is infinitive, not active imperative ? (I gather that 'orare' might be the singular passive imperative form, not something I can claim much familiarity with, but even if so it wouldn't then mean what it is claimed to mean.) Anyway, on this part of the argument I thought I'd seek the views of people more qualified to pronounce on Latin than I am.
 
  • Snodv

    Senior Member
    English - Mid-Southern US
    You are right--orare is an infinitive, and it makes no sense. Even if it is passive, it means "you are being begged/pleaded/prayed," and none of those make any sense either. So I doubt there was any punning intent.
     

    lentulax

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Well, it's a pun because "o rare" can be read either in Latin or in English and with the same meaning.
    :D ! You're maybe the first person to think of that - or the first to point it out publicly! I'm not sure it qualifies as a pun, though, at least according to stricter definitions; but you're certainly entitled to call it a play on words, though of a kind so rare that I don't know that there's a distinguishing word to identify it .
    However, it's all grist to the mill ; one of the arguments for the o rare/orare pun is that people in those days were more familiar with Latin, and wouldn't have been able to help noticing that the letters made 'orare', understanding it to mean 'pray for' (and thus for me contradicting the notion of their competence in Latin); however, you make it clear that anyone whose familiarity with Latin led them to notice the Latin meanings where available of English words/phrases would , seeing 'O rare Ben Jonson', have read 'O rare [vocative] Ben Jonson' in Latin , a sentence both grammatical and meaningful.
     

    Scholiast

    Senior Member
    Greetings all

    It may be pertinent to remark here that Jonson had the benefit of a thorough education in Latin and Greek at Westminster School in London—unlike his older friend Shakespeare, whom he nonetheless honoured by declaring that he was comparable with the poetic and dramatic maestros of antiquity, despite having (to Jonson is owed the phrase) 'small Latine and lesse Greeke'.

    Σ
     
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