Hidden Meanings in “Publish or Perish”

· Etymology

Publish or perish! This pithy expression reminds (reminded) the academic of the Sword of Damocles which hangs over the head of the non-productive professor. There are work-arounds now, in that one becomes a member of some institute for a fee, which may then accept a work in its journal. It is the academic’s equivalent of the lazy student’s diploma mill. After all, many universities have their own imprint.

By “hidden meanings” of this expression, we tease the reader into accepting the challenge of giving some preliminary thought as to what these might be. Once this article presents its sources, we delve into the root of the “publish” part of the expression, as well as its manifold translations. It will be seen that some of these translations can be applied to more than just the scholar, and that they suggest more than one way of extinguishing one’s reputation.

Some of the preceding will be the result of what is more word play than anything else. This is facilitated by the numerous false cognates between Latin and our modern languages.


In order to simplify matters, we will make use of the first dictionaries I have at hand. One of these is Latin Dictionary by Alastair Wilson in the Teach Yourself series, henceforth referred to as Wilson. For something weightier, we have downloaded Part I (Latin – English) of Charles Anthon’s Latin – English and English – Latin Dictionary for the Use of Schools [New York: Harper, 1873], henceforth referred to as Anthon. The original idea came from a small volume in Spanish, Latín vital, Tomo I, by Enrique Moyano, [Barcelona: Herder, 1969]. It is a book with the most ridiculous sentences, perhaps to challenge the learner. At least, it has some entertainment value.

Etymologies were verified with the American Heritage Dictionary.

Latin Translations of “Publish” Retranslated into English, with Word Play

Our first problem is to determine the translation into Latin of “publish”. We do this, not to teach Latin, but to translate the sentence back into English, to see what astonishing result we get. This is based on the story of what happens when a real or hypothetical computer translates the biblical “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” into Russian, and then back into English (through German). The result offered – I read this about 40 years ago – is along the lines of: The alcohol is agreeable, but the meat is bad. If the reader has any doubts about such reversed translations, recourse can be made to on-line translators, a sentence of foreign text inserted, and then that text subjected to a reverse translation. No guarantee is given for our spirituous example, but if the words are translated through a dictionary, with a fortuitous choice of words – the most apt one, that is – our closest result will be ” … the meat is poor”, that last word translated into German can come back into English as “bad”. Here I give a link to a German translation,  which is not quite the way I remember it,  but it does corroborate my story.  A search can even be made  using the terms I have suggested in English, but the web pages paint this as some kind of Urban Legend, and are of unknown quality.

Wilson gives us three choices for “publish”, which far outdoes the Spanish – Latin part of a dictionary we have, in that the latter ignores the word completely. The options are proferro, effero, and edo. The first of these, in its primary sense, is like our English word “proffer”, but proffers no further punning. The second of these gives us the rather obscure word “efferent” and the seemingly unlikely  derivations “elate” and “elation”, from and irregular verb form, such as in our English series, “go, went, gone”, where “went” seems to have no logical connection to “go”. Effero is rather problematic from our point of view, as it has a homonym, meaning “to brutalize”. E tu, Brutus?

The primary meaning, chiefly identical to proferro, also gives a bad taste in the extended meaning, “to bury”. Ah! To bury Caesar came Brutus! Brutalizing or burying has more to do with perishing than publishing! Yet there is a circle of meanings here, which will be mentioned at the appropriate time.  (The non-standard word order found in this paragraph is deliberate.)

In the English – Latin part, Wilson makes clear that for books, the best word is edo, leaving us to wonder what other things the Romans published. This is not made clear in the Latin part of the dictionary.  Moreover, we find that, were I not to mention that our dictionary helps make a very important distinction through its marking of long and short vowels – which is not to be found in most texts, and for which reason,  without these indications of vowel quantity (length) – we again have what appears to be a homonym. The first of these words, roughly pronounced as “Ed Doe” is the root of our word “to eat”. So, truly, publish to eat, or starve and die, is what appears to be, (or have been) the situation for professors.

What we are looking for then, if we avoid the outlandish, is to consider the word shown in good dictionaries as ēdo, which in cheaper texts, or bad teaching, is said to sound like “aydoe.  In fact, when learning the parts of this verb, one of the forms is ēditum. We strike out the “um” and can then can quibble if someone’s job might not be to edit or perish! The blurred distinction is clear in Spanish, where a publishing house is referred to as a [casa] editorial, and the publisher as an editor. These are the kinds of words that trick language users into a false sense of having understood the terms.

We have now examined some of the recommended translations for “publish”, and commented upon the pitfalls which would cause any publisher either to edit the mistakes, or reject any work with such errors entirely, thus putting an author on the road to his perishing.

Let us now move on to another option, where we learn something unexpected about government.

In Anthon, we see that there is a word publico, derived from publicus, and that, in turn, from populus. This latter gives us “people” and “populate”, but one must be beware: a populator is a destroyer, and populate, as a Latin word, is “destroy ye”, from whence we could say, instead of the famous phrase, Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed), – and this is a direct order! – Carthagem populate! So we could well say, the word actually means “depopulate”, and why not, as in this bad analogy: inflammable as flammable.

(Our on-line translator gave “Carthage is popular” for our wicked order, which must be an attempt to countermand some Roman general from 2 milennia ago!)

Anthon’s second definition of the verb publico is “to make publicly known, to publish”, and he gives an example from Suetonius, referring to libellos, that is, small books or pamphlets, from which we see that Wilson did not go far enough in his definitions (caused by considerations of the size of the volume, of course). For the record, we will now state, that all three of Wilson’s Latin words for “publish” can translate back into English as “to bring out”, which indeed, is an expression sometimes meaning “to publish”.

We will now transcribe and comment on most of the rest of Anthon’s definition, which starts with the general idea, “To give or impart any thing to the state or community”. We shall leave untranslated his examples of “for public use”, such as publicare pudicitiam, or publicare corpus suum vulgo, which we have included here, to emphasize a euphemism, and the relationship of this expression (for those who would look it up) to the most important part of the definition, insofar as it matches that which originated this writer’s intentions for writing this article.  (Using an on-line translator will not help.)

The third definition is “To make public property, appropriate to the state, to confiscate.” I would reword the first part to this: “to make property public”, i.e. to socialize it. Our reflection comes from Moyano, sentence 9, page 24:

Quid legatus publicavit? — Legatus fundum magnum pecuniamque publicavit.

What did the legate confiscate? — The legate confiscated a large property and some money.

Public Policy though the Root of “Publish” – Perish the Thought!

This leads us into some ideas on what is possibly really meant by public property. Inherently, it seems to contain the very idea of communism, in that the people, the public, are the owners of everything, be it called the means of production or anything else.

While it may be argued that the idea of private property has been ignored, I beg to differ; but again, this can be material for philosophical reflection. Firstly, the idea of a progressive income tax, insofar as it cannot be avoided, confiscates a disproportionate amount of wealthier earners’ gains. Were these to have been ill-gotten, would it not be more sensible to do so via the courts?

Further, the public has no inherent right to use that which the state has confiscated for so-called public use. Government revenues through taxation and more direct punishments cannot be used freely by the citizen, but only as the government decides. An even better example is that of state-owned property, which the public can often not enter at all, or only under limited conditions. A hot-dog stand cannot be set up on the White House lawn, and when city by-laws so decree, on no sidewalk or city park. Farmers may not graze their animals in public parks. And of course, do not expect a public servant to actually “serve” the public more than himself.

We now have, in some countries, a double use of some individuals in the public sense. This is with respect to our previous reference, of those who, engaging in publicare pudicitiam, are then taxed. This is an impudence, if not an impudicity (both of the same root) on the part of governments. In this sense, we might say that Al Capone was not treated as a benefit to the State, which ended up housing and feeding him. While he was guilty of tax evasion, would not a simple confiscation of a percentage of his wealth without prison, and a control of his future income (again taxed) have given the State more revenue? After all, the State (in some countries) now profits from the same type of activity (referenced in this paragraph in Latin) as Capone did.

After having dealt with the above, I am, however, left with a somewhat untidy loose end. There are places in the world where people send their animals out to graze together with the herds of others. What kind of property is that, for it is not private? It is the common(s), used by the community in general. Now, is it possible to say that this use of land is neither socialistic nor communistic? Here is our difficulty, but I would answer: Yes, it is neither. It referred to a simple use of land for grazing or travelling, perhaps farming, but the homes of the people, and the animals still had their “private” owners. It was, or is, an intelligent system of sharing, much as of a river which is shared by all those that have property fronting it, or as the air that we all breathe. We use air and water in common, without necessarily implying any political affiliation. Why should the same not be true of land ownership?

What about our circle of meanings? We will apply this to two situations, the censorship of writings, and politicians and government.

In the first of these cases, in a State which practices censorship, as soon as the author publishes, the state confiscates, thus our verb publico applies to both.  If the product is furthermore considered libellous or blasphemous, the author published and perished.  If the publication is not confiscated, it remains to be seen what percentage of the income on such a work is “confiscated”.

As for incumbent governments, or the politicians, especially those on the outside trying to get in, in order to redistribute wealth, which they claim is for the public good, from what we know, they must tax, i.e. confiscate. It so happens that the politician who will not encroach further upon the private wealth of individuals will have difficulties in getting elected by the populace. The guiding principal for such candidates must then necessarily be: Publicare aut perere, which is not to be translated as “publish or perish”, but as “confiscate or perish”. Whosoever becomes brutalized or buried by the energetic implementation of such a policy, is no more that collateral damage.

November 3, 2018

© 2018, Paul Karl Moeller

A version in Spanish, with some modifications, and in no sense meant to be a literal translation, can be found on this web-site, with the title: Los significados desconocidos de «publicar», y sus tristes ramificaciones.


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