A century ago, when the Latin and Greek classics still were closely associated with a college education, the graduating Class of MDCCCCX at the University of California at Berkeley decided that its graduation gift to the university would be provided with a suitably dignified Latin inscription, memorializing its own benefaction and that of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a member of the Board of Regents of the university and incidentally also mother of William Randolph Hearst.
The gift was a big arch by a little bridge over a little brook, Strawberry Creek, that runs from the Berkeley hills through the campus toward the bay. They asked Professor William Merrill, a distinguished scholar who is said to have read almost everything extant in classical Latin, to provide the inscription. It reads:
Hanc pontem dono dedit classis studentum quae in anno MDCCCCX foras exiit ne memoria sua apud posteros pereat. Phoebe Apperson Hearst impensis subvenit.
For the benefit of classmates who took the Bachelor of Letters degree instead of the Bachelor of Arts and thus were not schooled in Latin, this translates approximately as:
The student class which in the year 1910 went forth has given as a gift this bridge so that its memory will not perish among posterity. Phoebe Apperson Hearst assisted with the expense.
And so those Latin letters were duly inscribed on the arch, beginning with “hanc pontem,” meaning “this bridge.”
That would be the end of the story, except for a grammatical anomaly. As we all know, “hanc” is the accusative singular of the determiner translated as “this.” The accusative case indicates that along with “pontem,” it’s the object of the verb “dedit.” And “hanc” also indicates that “pontem,” the noun “hanc” modifies, belongs to the feminine gender.
As it turns out, even a novice in the study of Latin can learn from her or his dictionary that “pons” and its various inflections, including “pontem,” is a masculine noun. So instead of the feminine “hanc,” it should be the masculine “hunc pontem.”
And once the arch was up, it didn’t take long for someone to notice. According to Professor Joseph Fontenrose in his memoir Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970, “At once his error was pointed out, and someone said that this was the only feminine bridge in the world.”
But what could anyone do? The word was set in stone. And Professor Merrill did what any great scholar would do: He defended his choice. After all, he had read almost everything of classical Latin. Fontenrose continues:
“Merrill defended the gender as written, having found feminine pons in some late ancient or early medieval writings (perhaps in Hisperica Famina, which has female bridges).”
The problem eventually came to the attention of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the university from 1899 to 1919 and himself a professor of Latin and Greek. Finally he could stand the embarrassment no longer. According to Fontenrose, “As the last act of his administration (so I have heard) Benjamin Ide Wheeler had the A of HANC changed to V. The repair is still visible.”
(In classical Latin there is no distinction between U and V, and V is used for inscriptions. It’s easier to chisel.)
And the moral of this story? Errare humanum est. Or better yet that famous line of Virgil, Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. For those of you with B.L.’s who don’t quite understand the Latin, it translates something like this: “Perhaps even this, one day, it will be pleasant to remember.”
Image from Flickr user quinn.anya