Deo Vindice: The Real Meaning.

MacDonald King Aston
27 April 2010

A David Wharton published an article back in 2004 on the meaning of the Latin phrase, Deo Vindice, ("With God as our Defender"). Presumably a Classics professor, Wharton proceeded to explain the Latin meaning of the words. In a predictable turn to the left, Wharton veered away from simply talking of the Latin, and instead launched on the (equally predictable) subject of racism.

How does racism play into Latin linguistics, you’re wondering? Easy. You see, said Wharton, the Latin can refer to a God who is a punisher. A God who, in short, punished the South for its racism. Wharton cites the writer Walker Percy, who never ceased complaining about being called a "Southern writer." Percy considered racism the original sin of the South, apparently never bothering to investigate the Northern slave trade (from 1630 onwards).

Wharton ends his article with "So let the sons [sic] of the Confederacy engrave deo vindice on their seal, and let the Latin mean what it will."

Yet not once in his article does Wharton actually explain the Latin. He merely gives his own translation and a few others. (Before jumping on the "God as punisher" bandwagon.)

How odd that one would write of a linguistic construction without explaining it. OK, pay attention. It’s pretty simple, and I’ll skip the boring stuff. But the phrase "Deo Vindice," when used as the subject of a sentence looks like this: "Deus Vindex." (Latin: nominative case of a second-declension noun followed by an adjective.)

But this phrase is not the subject of a sentence, say, "God is a Vindex." It is, in fact, in a construction known as "the ablative absolute" to everyone who has ever studied even basic Latin. The ablative case (a form of a noun in general) means that the two words can have three essential contexts besides their direct dictionary meanings: 1) from, or away from, 2) in or at (from the Locative case), and 3) with or by (from the Instrumental case). The ablative absolute expresses a great deal more than these, but these are the basics.

Now the original meaning of Vindex was a legal term. A Vindex was someone who helped out a debtor by assuming liability for the debtor’s debt. From there, it was easy for Vindex to mean "a defender" or "champion." From there came "one who punishes." Deus, of course, means "God." (Directly related to the Indo-European root whence cameth "Zeus," by the way.)

So "Deo Vindice" can express, besides its dictionary meaning, those three contexts of the ablative absolute, of which I shall give samples:

"Where God is the Avenger"
"Because God is the Champion"
"With God as [our] Avenger"
"God the origin of [our] Defender"

Because the AA came from the notion of "instrumental origin," I prefer to translate the phrase with that background in mind. And isn’t it odd? It’s precisely how most people do, in fact, translate it: "With God as [our] Champion."

Race, Walker Percy or no, has (excuse the pun) absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of the phrase. Nada, nihil, zip, zilch, no way, none, nothing.

There is no irony. No tragedy. None. Especially when you consider than the ones who did the capturing of slaves from Africa were from the North, not the South. Fact.

The Latin means what it means, and any sinistral attempt to impose that most beloved of guilt-based, Northern-Puritan, conceptions of race upon the linguistics of "Deo Vindice" comes up, not only short, but embarrassing.

Someone needs to go back to Latin 101.

But, take heart. I’m always here to help the errant Yankee linguist.

© 2010 The Fire Eater

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