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Mind your language

Word of the week: Chronograms

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

Jan Morris in her book Oxford enjoyed the Greek lettering on the floor of the rotunda entrance to Rhodes House, Oxford. It seems to complement the Greek inscription on the roof and pious memorials on the walls. But literally translated, it means: ‘Let no smoke-bearing person enter.’ In other words: ‘No smoking.’

Could it have been the work of Alan Bell, the agreeable librarian there, and later at the London Library? I forget.

But there’s an older joke lost on most who stare at it (if that is amusing) on the facade of the Rhodes building of Oriel College in the High. Under the statue of the college benefactor, big letters read:

e Larga MVnIfICentIa CaeCILII rhoDes

The bigger letters sticking up look outlandish, but this is a chronogram. Simply add them together as Roman numerals: L+M+V+I+I+C+I+ C+C+I+L+I+I+D= 1911.


A less controversial inscription above the entrance to St Edmund Hall used to annoy me as I cycled past:

sanCtVs edMVndVs hVIVs aVLae lvx

(St Edmund, light of this Hall). Add up the big letters (disregarding the unwanted Ds) and they make 1246, when the good Archbishop of Canterbury was canonised, only six years after his death.

An allied date puzzle on buildings was to vary the conventional M (for 1,000) by using an upright stroke preceded by a C and followed by another C in reverse: C|Ɔ.

The reverse C is called a C apostrophus. After a vertical stroke it resembled a D, signifying 500, as we know.

I’m glad that some entries in the Oxford English Dictionary have not been updated. One is the entry for apostrophe (‘the sign used to indicate the omission of a letter’), published in 1885, which retains a judgment on its pronunciation.

This, it says, ‘ought to be of three syllables in English as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with apostrophe’ (the figure of speech by which a speaker turns to address some person).

It would take some single-mindedness always to call an apostrophe an ‘apostroph’.


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