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The first verse from "Dies Irae" goes like

Dies irae, dies illa

I'm trying to understand what "illa" is referring to.

According to the declension table for pronouns, "illa" corresponds either to feminine nominative/ablative plural or neuter nominative/accusative plural.

This means "illa" definitely doesn't refer to "dies".

So I guess the only possibility is that it refers to "ira", but for some reason I feel something's off.

Any suggestions?

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This means "illa" definitely doesn't refer to "dies".

But it does! The word dies can be feminine, and it is here.

The feminine gender is rarer but it is the typical choice for a special day like an appointment or a deadline. That's why it was chosen here.

For details, see this question about gender variation in dies.

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    Some deadline! I enjoyed your description of the day of judgment as “an appointment or deadline” which I think is the funniest understatement I have seen in a long time. – 11684 May 26 at 12:12
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    @11684 It was indeed an attempt at a comic understatement, but also factually accurate: You'd use the feminine in such uses, and the last judgement certainly qualifies in the category. [Note: I edited the comments a bit for clarity.] – Joonas Ilmavirta May 26 at 12:14
  • @J... I meant that I underplayed judgement to a mere deadline; the comic intentions were mine in this answer, not of the original text. The feminine is used regularly for specified dates as this one certainly would be (albeit unknown to men), so there's nothing unusual about the choice. And even my answer can be read in full seriousness; the comedy, if any, is unimportant. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 27 at 20:19
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Ah, ok, I misunderstood, lol. I thought your comment was suggesting that the original intent of the line was to be something of a play on words. I follow now. – J... May 27 at 21:09
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It is the feminine nominative and refers to dies. It means “that day.”

You do not say why you think you can definitely rule it out, but I guess you think dies is masculine, which is indeed the case. But it is also often feminine. Generally speaking, it is feminine only when referring to a set day, an appointed time. This does arguably apply to the day of the last judgement.

(In the messy reality of many authors and manuscripts of varying quality, the picture is not so simple. The dictionary entry linked above gives a rough overview.)

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Additionally, note that "irae" in "Dies irae" is in the genitive. "illa", in the nominative, can't match a noun in the genitive case. :)

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  • I think that explains why I felt something was wrong. Thank you! – rmdmc89 May 27 at 14:16
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The morphological issues are explained already. In any case, I hope that a literal translation will help:

"The day of wrath, that wellknown day"

About the use of illa, in this context, I would say that it is used to indicate some well-known or celebrated object, equivalent to the ancient, the wellknown, the famous.

You can find this use here:

Lewis&Short's entry: ille II A.

https://logeion.uchicago.edu/ille

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    Welcome to the site and thank you for the answer! Indeed, both the choice of the pronoun illa and the feminine version of dies drive home the message that it is a well-known and special day. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 28 at 12:03

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