Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Clothes make the man"

     As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that. 
     It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man." 
     But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
     Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
     A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.  
     I recount this because the New York Times website on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times." 
     The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.  
     An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
     So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers — I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them. 

* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)


  1. Neil, I believe it was Leo Durocher who said that, not Casey. Honestly, this past week, on a Fresh Air NPR program, in a discussion about misquotes, it was reported that Leo Durocher said,"Nice guys finish in seventh place".

  2. hate to be a nit picker but the nice guys quote is attributed to leo durocher , one time manager of the cubs. its the title of his autobiography. though it was a meandering path to the final iteration of the line and some other contributors are acknowledged mr stengle is not one of them. the original quote was nice guys finish in 7th. though who knows really. it all began with sports writers, and can you trust them for accuracy?

    1. You do? Most people love picking nits. Anyway, Fred beat you to it. Still, thanks.

  3. and the accompanying photo of the painting? indicative of lack of clothing makes the woman? and her presumed lack of authority ? just wondering where the mind wanders during the study of latin and its application

  4.'re breaking the NYT's chops because of an inaccuracy in an ad they ran? Pretty persnickety IMO.

  5. Glad to have read this. I agree it's crucial to trust that our newspapers and other media remain credible. Because when we can't even believe one word of what our own country's president spouts on a daily basis, it becomes just a wee bit dicey. I like this quote from Caesar: "quod volunt credunt" (men believe what they want to). SandyK

    1. "Homines quod volunt credunt", that is.

  6. The Quintilian quote about clothes conveying authority to men seems timeless indeed in that women assuming executive positions are still expected to dress like men. In business suits.

    And the Manet "Luncheon in the Grass," like his "Olympia," shocked
    contemporary taste not by portraying nude women but by making them look like normal females rather than the idealized figures of Giorgione and Titian. A more modern objection would be that only the lady goes sans attire in "luncheon," a somewhat brutal demonstration of male privilege.



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