The Paideia Institute's In Medias Res magazine recently published a compilation of “Thirteen Dad Jokes from Ancient Rome.” Dad jokes are apparently supposed to be particularly cheesy jokes and puns (the lowest form of humour).

The jokes are presented in English, with weblinks to the original Latin, but no explanation how the joke works in Latin. Some of them work just as well in English; some are nigh untranslatable, and the translator veers quite far from the original to allow for wordplay in English.

Here is how one joke from Cicero's De oratore, 2,249, is translated:

Philippus told a smelly guy, “It seems you’ve … (sniffing) … goat me surrounded!”

The original is:

in male olentem "video me a te circumveniri" subridicule Philippus

I don't get it. Yes, he tells the smelly person, “I see you've got me surrounded,” that is pretty straightforward. Where is the pun in Latin?


1 Answer 1


In a footnote to his 1891 translation of the relevant sentence (page 294), J. S. Watson says this:

2 Video me a te circumveniri. Toup, in his Appendix to Theocritus, suggests that we should read Video me a te non circum, sed hircumveniri, referring to a similar joke of Aristophanes, Acharn. 850.

(Out of haste, I originally misinterpreted the footnote as saying that Toup suggested that hircumveniri was later falsely corrected to/replaced with circumveniri; but I now see that he actually thought that the full line is Video me a te non circum [= circumveniri], sed hircumveniri.)

It's a good suggestion, I think, since billy-goats are identified with human body odor elsewhere in Latin literature – e.g., Catullus 71 and Horace, Epode 12. There's probably something in Plautus too, maybe Martial.

I don't know how widely accepted Toup's suggestion is. At any rate, it appears that the translator of the passage in your article was aware of it and followed it.

  • 1
    I like the suggestion of hircumveniri – as you’ve pointed out, hircus is routinely used to denote a bad smell (usually emanating from armpits!) (e.g. Plautus, Pseudolus, 735; and Poenulus, 870). However, in the Cicero passage in question he continues, “At utrumque genus continet verbi ad litteram immutati similitudo” which I understand to be saying that these sorts of pun contain a likeness to a word which is unchanged to the letter. If so, there’s no missing line. Perhaps the joke depends, therefore, on a certain pronunciation? Perhaps the ‘c’ is more of a ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’?
    – Penelope
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 7:40
  • @Penelope, OLD lists both an adjective immutatus where the im- is a negating prefix ('without alteration, unchanged') and a verb immutare, where it's an intensifier ('to make different, alter, modify'). In his translation, Watson is taking it as the latter: 'yet it is the resemblance of words, with the change only of a letter, that constitutes both jokes.' Still, I did wonder the same thing as you, thinking particularly of Catullus 84, where commoda is pronounced chommoda and insidias hinsidias.
    – cnread
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 16:15
  • (Continued) However, I think the joke is weaker that way (though of course this is entirely subjective), because it relies on two bases: mispronunciation through aspiration and then a double interpretation of the resulting word, one of which would involve a punning word that P. possibly made up for the occasion. (I'll note in passing that I also think that Toup's addition of 'non circum sed' also makes for a weaker joke than simply 'Video me a te hircumveniri.')
    – cnread
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 16:40
  • @cnread “a punning word that P. possibly made up for the occasion” – hoc veri mehercule simile mihi videtur. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 19:24

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