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This question arose the other day in our chat room: What is a laptop in Latin?

There are several possible ways to approach this. It feels most reasonable to me to take a word for "computer" and combine it with a suitable adjective. In suitable context the noun can be dropped. I find computatrum to be a very good word for a computer. The adjectives that first come to mind are mobile, portabile, sinuale. (I don't think sinuale is attested classically, but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable word by analogy to other adjectives in -alis and other words derived from sinus.) I might be missing other approaches or perhaps reasons not to use some of these options.

What would you suggest as a Latin translation for "laptop [computer]" and why? The natural criteria ease of understanding and difficulty of misunderstanding. Brevity or analogy with other languages is a bonus.

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"Appendix V" of the book Conversational latin for oral proficiency contains three pages of computer terms (vid. infra a selection of them: e.g., computatrulum portabile for "laptop". NB: I've just googled for a while and it seems that the more frequent term is computatrum portabile, i.e., without any diminutive suffix). Computatrum gestabile is another option.

computatrum, ordinatrum ("computer")

computatrulum portabile ("laptop")

compactus discus opticus ("CDROM")

ex rete prehendere ("download")

pagina domestica ("home page")

partes programmationis ("software")

effractarius electronicus ("hacker")

Tela Totius Terrae ("WWW")

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I agree that computatrum is good for 'computer' (and so, incidentally, did the Pope's Latin Secretary — thirty or so years ago, though he also advocated computatorium). But the main thing here is surely to convey the idea of portability, leading me to suggest computatrum portandum; in the proper context, just as 'laptop computer' is shortened to a single word, so would portandum alone be easily understood.

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Romans would have been so astonished by any kind of computing device ("ancient", 1960s' adding-mackhines; 1970s' pocket-calculators; Charles-Babbages' (C19th) manful attempt (sympathy for him: he knew the technology of his time was not up to where his ideas were: "Oh to live for one day, 500-years from now!!") that they might have said: "deus ex machina!".

Well-known = god from a machine; a (Greek) theatrical device, adopted by the Romans; an intractable circumstance suddenly resolved by a "miraculous" event; beyond coincidence, therefore, somehow contrived.

Yes, they would have been shocked & stupefied; but, as the novelty faded, a laptop would have been seen as just another machine; brilliant, advanced, centuries ahead of its time, perhaps; but, just another machine.

Imagine friends of Julius Caeser, or Cicero, "I'll just go on my "deus", contact Latin Stack, to ask for an interpretation of what Cicero has just said to me?"

Given Joonas's dissatisfaction it is incumbent, upon me, to improve the answer! Other colleagues have deployed computeresque-terms so cannot copy these. What about "machina visus et somni" = "machine of vision & sound"; or, even "machina visus". This may sound more like a TV; but, then, laptops are used to watch TV-progs. As Tom Cotton indicates, these things tend to be truncated into one-word terms, "visus" = the vision. We Brits speak of wathching "tele"; never, "the television" (In Finnish?). Of course, the Latin, "visus", has a supernatural angle "The Vision!" This concept could take us into the realms of superstition; religious-zealotry; a possible execution for dabbling in "witchcraft", if you can handle that?

Suspect that this joke is not appreciated (humour does not travel); but, if you could take your laptop back in time, what do you really think would happen?

  • This suggestion appears pretty easy to misinterpret. It sounds more like "wonder" than "laptop" to me. While surely wondrous to the ancients, it's not a good word for telling that it's a laptop instead of a microwave oven or an assault rifle or a space shuttle. Did you have an idea why deus ex machina would refer specifically to a laptop? – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 17 at 10:34
  • @Joonas llmavirta: Just a flight-of-fancy. All the devices, you mention, would have been alien to the Romans--they could have called them anything--perhaps, "malus" = "evil". People, then, were rather superstitious; certainly, in Medieval England, you would have been executed as being "in-league-with-the-Devil". On a lighter note, did consider "machina parva" = "little machine"; but, it seemed too prosaic. Have a good weekend. – tony Aug 17 at 11:35
  • @Joonas llmavirta: Have improved the answer (I think). – tony Aug 18 at 10:41

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