Friday, January 6, 2012

Pig's Latin

One of Toby's most notable achievements, singled out for praise by Dr Johnson, was his understanding of the Latin language. By his own account, he was instructed personally by Dr Adams, Master of Pembroke College at Oxford, using what was, at the time, the standard school text, Ruddiman's Rudiments of the Latin Tongue. The happy alliteration of the phrase, with both man and title dactylic in meter, made for a memorable combination -- so much so that, as late as 1857, a hundred years after the death of Mr. Ruddiman, a book of that title was still being printed. It seems that, rather like the name "Webster's" for American dictionaries, the fame of his name was so persistent that it became a by-word and eponym for any good student Latin grammar.

Toby also mentions that Dr Adams presented him with a little book of "Sententiæ Antiquæ." This text is harder to identify; while many there were numerous collections of old Latin saws, none bears this exact title. Popular compilations of the kind were made by Charles Hoole (1610-1667), William Noy (1577-1634), and Giles Jacob (1686-1744), though since these were compendious volumes intended primarily for students of the law, they hardly meet the description "little book." This volume may indeed have been a small, privately printed or even handwritten text, a sort of a primer or sourcebook for the beginning student.

Never the less, though the volume may be hard to identify, the Latin phrases from it are all familiar, and seem to have almost immediately found use in Toby's life; he frequently resorted to quoting from them in his Memoirs. Toby was also, at the same time, studying from Cicero's orations against Cataline, and phrases from these were a special favorite. When Toby is kidnapped by a group of rowdy undergraduates, he exclaims "O tempora! o mores!" (O the times, the customs!), and when he grows exhausted by his contest with a rival Pig of Knowledge, asks "Quo usque tandem" ("How much longer," a famous phrase from the First Oration).

Sometimes, Toby rather alters the sense of these sayings; the phrase "Absque Labore, Nihil" -- usually taken to mean that you must work to get anything, is used by Toby to comment on the men he sees working at harsh and tedious employments; to him, it meant that, aside from their labors, these men had, literally, nothing. In some cases, the version of the sayings he quotes are unusual; in the place of Publilius Syrus's usual "Saxum volutum non obducitur mosco" he gives "Musco lapis volutus haud obvolvitur," a version of "Moss grows not on a rolling stone" otherwise attested only in a little-known Spanish volume. Whatever their source, by his use of such phrases, Toby acts and "speaks" much as would any other educated person of his day, and by choosing the apt maxim for the apt moment, demonstrates his learning, with just a very small -- and appropriate -- blush of pride.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Plethora of Learned Pigs

"Toby," the original Learned Pig and the subject of my novel, Pyg, had in his day to contend with a number of porcine rivals, among them another English pig of the same name, a French cochon savant, and even an automaton pig, a thing of cogs and springs that could never complain about a harsh master or foolish questions. The tradition of such pigs extended well through the nineteenth century, as a search of historical newspapers readily demonstrates; we've already mentioned Mr Pinchbeck in these pages, but there were a host of others. Mr. James L. Hazard, whose handbill is shown here, appeared in several towns in New England around 1839; little else is known of him. In 1843, a Learned Pig was exhibited in Toronto; this one specialized in card tricks, which he performed, by one account, "with a precision and quickness that would do honor to an Egyptian magician." He also was able to spell "even the abstruse and obsolete words," a sign that his learning was not merely a matter of rote. In Cleveland, Ohio, the city of my birth, an advertisement for a Learned Pig to be shown at Doan's Corners (now the intersection of Euclid Ave. and East 107th street) appeared in 1848. The advertisement contained so many errors of spelling and grammar that it elicited widespread scorn, with a writer for the Sandusky Register giving it as his opinion that "if the pig is not more 'learned' than his master, he is no great shakes."

The great majority of these pigs took the name of their illustrious forebear, but there were some exceptions of note; a pig shown in Richmond, Virginia in 1870 was known as "Wicked Ben"; an especially sagacious pig in New Orleans in 1849 was called "Lord Byron," and a pig shown in Kalamazoo in 1884 was dubbed "Jumbo," a name perhaps consciously designed to echo that of P.T. Barnum's famous elephant, who was still alive at the time. Their acts all had similar elements -- spelling out of words, telling the time, and so forth, with a few variations: a pig shown in New York in 1872 was said to excel at euchre, a feat which elicited "great applause from the brokers and bankers of Wall and Broad Streets, who find a pleasant relaxation from financial cares in witnessing piggy's antics." A few years previous, a gambling pig appeared on Broadway, which "learned grunter" was said to have won $250 from his unlucky human opponent.

The act seems finally to have faded from popularity in the early twentieth century, with a few scattered exceptions, many of which were attached to cheap "dime museums" that appeared at country fairs. One of these, operated by man calling himself "Professor Worth," which appeared at a number of venues in and around Coney Island early in the century, included a learned pig among its attractions, but his show ended with the professor's death in 1917. After that date, nearly all the references to the Learned Pig are articles about long-past exhibitions, or punch-lines for poor jokes (e.g. "Which pigs are paid a salary? Those who are sty-penned!"). It's a loss not to be lamented, I fear, as Toby's own story illustrates; many, doubtless, were the cruel masters, and few the kind, and aside from Toby no other creature seems to have managed to free himself from being exhibited to the public as a "freak of nature."